Fired over staffing ask, director of Arkansas parole and probation system says

Posted: July 20, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Community Correction Department Director Sheila Sharp

Sheila Sharp was fired Thursday from her role atop Arkansas' parole and probation system, and in a letter she suggested she had been ousted for defying the governor's orders not to ask for staff increases.

Sharp, director of the Department of Community Correction since July 2013, was fired in a unanimous vote by the Board of Corrections, the panel overseeing Community Correction and the Department of Correction. The action came after a closed session Thursday morning.

Board chairman Benny Magness declined to comment about the firing, calling it a personnel decision.

The firing was effective immediately, and the board installed Deputy Director Kevin Murphy to lead the agency temporarily, spokeswoman Dina Tyler said.

Sharp, whose car was a state vehicle, had to be driven home by Tyler, who said the firing was unexpected.

In a statement Thursday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he agreed with the board's decision to fire Sharp and thanked her for her service.

Pointing to her "role model" rating on her most recent employee evaluation, Sharp told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette late Thursday that she felt intimidated into leaving immediately, or risk being painted unfairly as insubordinate.

"This is a direct result of the governor wanting me gone," Sharp said. "Our agency is thriving."

In a memo to the board, released later to reporters, Sharp said she was accepting the termination in order to receive unemployment benefits and that plans had fallen apart to allow her to retire next year without embarrassment to her family and state government.

"I take this opportunity to set the record straight regarding the grounds for my dismissal; and to offer a cautionary note to the public that I have so tirelessly served," Sharp's letter said.

In June, Hutchinson sent a request to heads of state agencies asking for "efficient and disciplined" budgeting for the 2019-21 biennium, as part of his plan to reorganize state government and cut further taxes. In his letter, the Republican governor said state agencies should not request additional personnel without prior approval.

Despite that instruction, Sharp sent the Board of Corrections a budget request on July 11 that sought permission to hire 99 additional parole and probation officers to reduce caseloads. The cost was put at around $13.4 million over two years. The Board of Corrections approved a request for 30 additional officers last week.

In her letter, Sharp said she was summoned to the governor's office Monday, where Hutchinson expressed displeasure over her budget request and said he wanted to "take the agency in a different direction."

According to Sharp's account of the meeting, Hutchinson said she would have time to "get things in order." She later called Magness to say that she desired to stay on until the end of the year, her letter said.

Magness then spoke with the governor, and afterward "his tone changed completely," and he told her that he no longer wanted to work with her, Sharp wrote.

Governor Asa Hutchinson is shown in this photo.

Arkansas Board of Corrections member Benny Magness is shown in this 2014 file photo.

Neither Magness nor the governor's office rebutted Sharp's claims. J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the governor, said: "we're not going to get into a back and forth with a departing Cabinet member."

The departments of Correction and Community Correction are separate Cabinet-level agencies and have been suggested as likely targets for merger.

While Community Correction makes up less than a quarter of the state's $440 million corrections budget, the agency oversees the majority of offenders: 60,000 parolees and probationers, as well as some people housed in short-term lockups.

The request for more parole and probation officers stems from a 2016 report by a state task force convened to find solutions to Arkansas' then-swelling prison system. That report recommended that the state hire 100 parole and probation officers over six years to reduce caseloads of 129 offenders per officer, a load that was more than double that in other states.

But with slim margins in the state budget, funding never arrived for the additional officers or for a proposed new $210 million state prison to ease overcrowding.

Elsewhere, the governor did provide a total of $6.4 million to open four crisis-stabilization units to keep mentally ill people out of jail, a major recommendation in the task force report.

In the most recent state budget in March, the Department of Community Correction was authorized to hire 30 additional officers but was not given the funding to do so. The agency has instead relied on filling 65 positions authorized in 2016, before the report was released.

"Forcing government reductions for the sake of tax cuts without due consideration of the dangers to the public lead to hard lessons being relearned," Sharp said in her letter, referring to Hutchinson's proposed $180 million tax cut to the highest-earning Arkansans, to be considered in the coming legislative session.

The announcement of Sharp's firing came as a group of lawmakers traveled to Malvern to tour the Ouachita River Correctional Unit on Thursday. After the tour, legislators learned that the state's three-year recidivism rate for offenders released in 2013 has risen to 56.5 percent.

The chairman of the subcommittee overseeing corrections, state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, expressed disappointment in the report and in Sharp's firing.

"Obviously, it had something to do with the fact that she was frank with the folks who are her superiors," Elliott said.

The state prison system, run by the Department of Correction, has faced issues with staffing and episodes of violence at maximum security prisons over the past year that officials attributed, in part, to the number of vacant security-officer positions.

State prisons director Wendy Kelley has said the department has since been able to use pay raises to hire more staffing and decrease instances of violence.

A Section on 07/20/2018