By Rob Moritz
Arkansas News Bureau
When the Omega Technical Violators Center in Malvern opened eight years ago, it was supposed to be an alternative to more prison time for parolees who had violated terms of their release.
As the state’s inmate population began to grow, however, officials began using the facility to house prison-bound parole violators for whom there was no room in overcrowded prison units. Most of the parolees ordered into the 60-day program would serve their time and be sent home, only to re-offend and be ordered back to the facility. More than 75 percent were repeat offenders in 2009 and 2010.
Last week, prison officials told lawmakers of plans to return the center to its original intent. They said that with new policies, including limiting the types of parolees who can enter the program and restricting the number of times they can participate, officials hope to reduce the number of repeat offenders.
"What we’re proposing is to get back to its roots, a return to its original purpose," state Department of Community Correction Assistant Director Dina Tyler told a legislative committee.
The new policies will prohibit parolees charged with new felonies from being ordered into the technical violators program and extend the program for first-time visits from the current 60 days to 90 days. If the parolee returns, the program will last 120 days.
Parolees who continue to violate the terms of their parole will be returned to the main prison population.
The policies are to be considered by the state Board of Corrections on Wednesday.
Tyler told a joint meeting of the Senate and House judiciary committees last week that the purpose of the new policies are to reduce the percentage of offenders who complete the program and are returned within a three-year period because of new run-ins with the law.
"We want to get their attention and change their behavior, so maybe they can go back out into society and be productive," she said.
With the extension to 90 days, Tyler said, the parolees will participate in a work crew and receive more intense employment skills training.
She said during the first 30 days of the program, the parolees will not be allowed to receive telephone calls, unless it’s an emergency, and they will not be able to have visitors.
"That is to remind them of how precious their freedom is so that they will respect it more and will follow the rules," she said. "Because if they can’t follow the rules of parole, chances of them following the rules in society are pretty slim, and we want them to follow the rules."
Tyler also said that after the participants complete their time on the work crew — 30 days for first-timers and 60 days for those in for the second time — "we will focus on job readiness, on employment skills … connecting them with community services, and of course go back over the rules and regulations of parole."
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, said during the meeting that he supports the new policies because the high rate of repeat offenders at the Malvern facility "underscores, I think, a huge failure I think we’ve had."
"This is an indictment on what … had been business as usual," he said, adding that up until recently the state Department of Correction had defined recidivism as re-entry into a state prison system, and those who violated their parole requirements and were sent back to the technical violators unit time after time were not counted as repeat offenders.
During the legislative session earlier this year, Sanders sponsored legislation signed into law that changed the definition of repeat offender to include people who are re-arrested after release, regardless of whether they have been convicted.
In September, Sanders was critical of the technical violators center for the unusually high number of repeat offenders in recent years.
Under the old definition of repeat offender, the recidivism rate at the Malvern facility was 46.3 percent in 2009 and 43 percent in 2010. Under the new definition, the rate increased to 76 percent in 2009 and 75.6 percent in 2010.
"They were driving all those people to TVC and it wasn’t counting against the recidivism rate, and those people coming out of TVC were re-convicted at a significantly higher rate," Sanders said last week. "They would always talk about how great a job they were doing.
"When you look at the changes they are making at TVC, this is a profound difference in anything we’ve done really in going back to the previous (Department of Community Correction) administration."
During last week’s meeting, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, suggested the policy changes might cause the prison population to rise, recalling a discussion several years ago where prison officials spoke against sending parolees who had violated technical terms of their parole back to prison.
"The argument then was we should not be sending technical violators, even if its a new felon, as long as it’s not violent, to prison, we should send them to TVC," Hutchinson said. "Are we reversing that? Are we sending more people to prison now, which is more expensive?"
Tyler said she did not think the new policies amount to a reversal.
"TVC was set up originally to slow the return of true technical violators back to (prison)," she said. "That was its goal, not just those with new charges, just those that were not reporting, had moved and didn’t tell anybody, or were getting dirty drug screens."
The idea was "to step in before the problem had escalated to new felonies, and say, ‘hey, you’re not doing this right, we need to readjust your thinking and change your behavior,’" Tyler told Hutchinson.
"That was its true intent and over the years it morphed into something else, primarily due to a lack of (prison) space," she said, adding the goal is to "maybe further slow the return of technical violators."