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It's a fine line to walk between policy and need.

At least that was the line, Shelia Sharp, the former director of the Department of Community Correction, tried to walk recently.

In reality, it was akin to her walking the plank on a ship.

Her attempts to provide future staffing of parole and probation officers, according to set new policy approved by a Blue Ribbon committee and the legislature, to beef up probation staffing, was nothing but a short stroll off the plank into the water.

She was fired so abruptly last week, by the Arkansas Board of Corrections that a fellow state employee, Dina Tyler, a long-time spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, had to drive Sharp's state-owned car back to the office from the meeting.

It was after a meeting with the Governor, days earlier, that Sharp was targeted for dismissal, according to those close to the situation.

Asked about the dismissal as stemming from the dust-up with the Governor over her budget requests for more personnel to supervise parolees and the fact her department's budget requests were for more money, neither the spokesman for the governor's office or Correction's Board Chairman, Benny Magness, a former Baxter County Sheriff, disputed those allegations.

Magness of Mountain Home, the chairman of the Arkansas Board of Corrections, at first, declined to talk about the firing, saying it was a personnel decision. Magness later admitted he tried to broker a compromise between Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Sharp's dismissal, but in that conversation the governor, according to Magness, "his (Hutchinson's) tone changed completely," and the governor no longer wanted to work with Sharp.

Sharp, occupied a cabinet-level post within the Hutchinson administration and was one of the two highest ranking officials within the Department of Corrections.

She has served as the head of the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, since July 2013.

At issue was a need for more parole and probation officers and the cost of the staffing.

Gov. Hutchinson, on the tight budget, asked all department heads to be both "efficient and disciplined" in budgeting for the 2019-2020 biennium as part of his plan to reorganize state government and future state taxes cut.

Adding more parole and probation officers, is apparently not in the governor's plans, despite pleas from the legislature, a Blue-Ribbon crime committee organized by the governor's office and cries from the public.

Sharp, not obeying the governor's warning, sent the Corrections Board a request asking permission to hire 99 additional parole and probation officers to reduce caseloads.

That cost was estimated to be $13.4 million over two years.

And that proposal was way too much over budget for Hutchinson to swallow.

The Board of Corrections, seeking cover from the Legislature and others critical of the vast shortages of probation officers in the state, approved a request for 30 additional officers.

A 2016 report by a Blue Ribbon committee, hand-picked by Hutchinson, recommended the state hire 100 parole and probation officers over six years to reduce caseloads.

The study cited that each parole and probation officer has 129 offenders per officer,

Let me repeat that: Each and every parole and probation officer in Arkansas currently has 129 offenders to oversee.

Another fact, evading the brouhaha over the firing of Sharp; Arkansas' three year recidivism rate for offenders released in 2013 is 56.5 percent.

In other words, for every 100 state prison inmates released on parole or probation, 56 return to prison or re-offend again, further clogging up the court system.

Sharp may not have been the best budget master of the governor's cabinet, but she was trying to follow the lead given to her by the legislature and the public.

She wanted to hire more parole and probation officers to reduce the recidivism rate of men and women returning to jails and prison.

Too bad Hutchinson is holding on to an ill-advised tax-cut policy -- directly linked to his re-election. That tax cut plan, apparently, has gotten in the way of actual need for the safety and security of Arkansas residents.

It was a bad firing Governor Hutchinson. And it was on your watch.

Can you, please explain?

-- Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at maylontrice@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 08/01/2018

Print Headline: State parole chief fired over budget request for staffing

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