How to fix the parole system in Arkansas 

With frustration over crime increasingly fueling a lock 'em up and throw away the key mentality, some say the solution to recidivism may be to make parolees feel more welcome.

Unless you want to be the kind of society that builds a machine-gun-studded wall around 100 square miles of east Arkansas, then periodically tosses new prisoners and bags of beans over it while allowing the Lord of the Flies to sort it all out, parole is necessary. We're a country that believes in second chances, and the fact is the overwhelming majority of people who go to prison will come out sooner or later, most of them on parole. But recidivism by parolees is a problem. A recent study of parolee recidivism, mandated by Arkansas Act 1030 which passed in the last session of the legislature, found that of the 10,072 people placed on parole in 2010, 57.5 percent have since been re-arrested on at least one charge, with 42.2 percent eventually going back to the prison.

That's a big, alarming number. A convenient whipping boy for that number is the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, the agency that handles the supervision of parolees. Many say it hasn't done a good job with the "supervision" part in the past. While conservatives are sure to suggest that DCC's failures are some kind of bleeding-heart conspiracy to let criminals run free, a look at the numbers helps bring things into perspective.

Parole officers appear to be overwhelmed. According to data obtained from DCC, currently there are 23,043 people on parole in Arkansas, versus 399 parole officers. That's 57 parolees for every parole officer.

In Pulaski County, the caseloads are even more out of whack: 4,594 parolees in Pulaski County — 20 percent of the state total — versus 55 parole officers. That's 83 parolees per officer. 

Most parolees are required to visit their parole officer weekly or monthly, while keeping their PO updated on things like counseling, housing and job changes, and any pending court dates, many of which the parole officer is required to attend. Workloads like that are undoubtedly part of the reason there was a 37 percent turnover rate for parole officers in the state last year, not to mention providing mile-wide cracks for a would-be parole violator to slip through.

While high caseloads explain at least part of the parole and recidivism problem, it's clear that poverty and the inability to find work and housing in a world where nearly every employment and apartment application includes "have you ever been convicted of a felony?" has a part to play in why parolees recidivate.

In the same study mandated by Act 1030, of those placed on parole in 2010 and subsequently rearrested within three years, 78 percent were arrested for non-violent crimes: selling drugs, burglary, forgery, failure to appear and pay fines, theft and misdemeanor property crimes. Meanwhile, 7.5 percent of 2010 parolees were re-arrested for a violent felony — murder, sex crime, felony assault, robbery or "other violent" offense — while 12.2 percent were rearrested for a violent misdemeanor. Another 2.2 percent were arrested for possession of a weapon. 

All this is to say that the issues involved in why parolees come out of prison and commit more crimes — unemployment, poverty, overloaded parole officers, nature, nurture, addiction, need, greed, bad wiring, untreated mental problems or plain ol' meanness — are not as simple as turning the key in a cell door. But in order for it to work, parole has to mean something, both for society and for parolees. It also has to be flexible enough to not make parolees feel like they're living with what one employment advocate the Times talked to called "a choke collar around their necks," preventing them from leading the normal, law-abiding lives that we as a society claim to want for them.  

So how, then, do we hit that happy medium?

'Fearlessness and hopelessness'

It took a senseless murder to make politicians, the general public and the media take a serious look at the parole system.

Eighteen-year-old Forrest Abrams, of Fayetteville, was murdered on May 10 after he and a friend were reportedly the victims of an early-morning robbery and carjacking by three men at a convenience store at 12th and Woodrow Streets in Little Rock. After his friend got out of the car at Fourth and Woodrow, the men drove away with Abrams in Abrams' SUV. His body was later found dumped near the corner of Woodrow and 11th streets. One of the men police say kidnapped and killed Abrams was a 47-year-old repeat parole violator named Darrell Dennis. Convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to 60 years in the Arkansas Department of Correction in June 1990, Dennis was paroled in November 2008, and almost immediately began treating his parole as a suggestion. The list of his offenses, drug screen failures and failures to report to his parole officer over the next four and a half years runs several pages of small type. A series of stories on the Abrams case by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette went into agonizing detail about all the ways DCC had let Dennis slide, including eight parole absconder warrants and 21 additional charges, above and beyond his numerous parole violations.

While most of Dennis' offenses were drug-related, DCC parole officer notes like the one from July 27, 2010 — "Admits to smoking THC — Last UA [urine analysis] positive. Has no desire to quit using or selling drugs" — are enough to make anybody wonder why Dennis was still walking the streets by May 2013.

Changes in the aftermath of the revelations about Dennis have been widespread, with the legislature digging into the issue, DCC director David Eberhard abruptly retiring on July 1, and DCC instituting new rules for parolees who don't comply, including forcing parolees charged with new felonies or multiple misdemeanors to stay in jail until the charges can be reviewed. 

Department of Community Correction spokesperson Dina Tyler said that there are changes that should and are being made to the way parole is handled by DCC, part of a "rebranding" of the agency in the wake of the revelations about Darrell Dennis. Under the direction of new agency director Sheila Sharp*, Tyler said, "there is a renewed emphasis on public safety being job one."

Tyler said that the forces that led to Dennis and others being able to abuse parole in the past were the result of a "snowball effect," which the agency is now actively working to avoid in the future.

With the Little Rock parole office Dennis reported to, Tyler said, "you had some management in place who probably weren't the most effective managers, plus you had a high turnover rate and a lot of vacancies, and all those cases still have to be supervised.... It becomes a mounding of cases, and there was no way anybody could do everything they were supposed to do."

Tyler said that in the wake of any "catastrophic" event like the murder of Forrest Abrams, people always question the usefulness of parole, but she contends parole is "a necessary part of criminal justice." After working the past 18 years in some capacity for the Arkansas Department of Correction, she said the person that worries her isn't the inmate coming out on parole and under supervision, it's the inmate who couldn't get parole, who served every day of his sentence, being "assaultive and aggressive," and who is released on the day his sentence ends.

"You let them go out the gates with no supervision, because their sentence is done," she said. "That, to me, is much more frightening: when you walk someone to the back gate in cuffs so they don't hurt you on the way out of the institution."

Tyler said that in order to curb recidivism and make parole matter, we need more parole officers to help lighten the caseloads and more effectively oversee parolees, and more assistance for inmates coming out. Both of those things cost money, of course. "That's where we always run into the brick wall," Tyler said. "Paying for it."

As for those who cheerlead for longer, harsher sentences to make parolees think twice before committing another crime that might send them back, Tyler cautions that may work in the short term, but not in the long term.

"You can do that, but here's what happens," she said. "When they leave [prison] — and 88 percent are going home — they leave with no more skills to do good than they came with and more skills to do bad, and they're mad. That's a dangerous combination."

Republican Sen. David Sanders of Little Rock was a driving force behind much of the legislature's efforts to address the parole and recidivism issue in the last session, including proposing the bill that eventually became Act 1030, which redefines "recidivism" as "a criminal act that results in the re-arrest, reconviction, or return to incarceration of a person with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the person's release from custody."

Sanders, who called the murder of Forrest Abrams a "tipping point" on the issue, said that over many years, DCC administrators have created a "Rube Goldberg contraption of obfuscating and hiding behind laws, using definitions that they've conjured up to really create a false reality." That's turned parole into a "joke" for many parolees, Sanders contends.

"You know what they say reality is," Sanders said. "Then you know what reality actually is. Then you get under the hood and start looking at the pieces and the components and what's really going on. That's when you get the harsh reality that state government, by way of the Department of Community Correction, was not only not doing its job, it had developed a method for covering up the fact that it wasn't doing its job and communicating something totally different."

As part of the proof of that disconnect from reality, Sanders points to that study of the parole system required by Act 1030. Compiled by JFA Associates of Denver and released in September, the study found that of those who attended DCC's Technical Violators Centers — facilities where those who have committed "technical violations" such as not showing up for meetings with a parole officer are committed for 60 to 90 days to undergo training in areas like job preparedness in lieu of sending them back to prison — more than 75 percent were rearrested on some charge within three years. Sending parolees to TVC, Sanders contends, became a kind of shell game that DCC used to keep their re-incarceration numbers low. (Dina Tyler with DCC said that the goal of TVC is an "intervention in parole" to try and divert those who would otherwise wind up contributing to overcrowded prisons over a non-violent parole violation. She said that in the past, there were parolees who were sent to TVC after committing new felonies, but it was only because it was "the only alternative to get somebody off the streets. ADC was full, the county jails were full, and they put them there so they were at least locked up.")

"I think everything was just out of balance," Sanders said, "just turned upside down. Somewhere along the way, public safety ceased to be the paramount issue in the minds of folks at the top."

With the changes that were passed in the last session and the administrative shakeup at DCC, Sanders believes the state's parole system is now moving in the right direction, though there is still work to be done. He said a functional parole system has to be a three-legged stool. One part, he said, is about reserving parole for those who deserve to be released. Another part is getting the philosophy, policies, personnel and money allocation right at DCC. The final part, he said, is making sure "that parole actually matters, and when somebody does something that they ought not to do, they're sent back, so that the criminal element — those committing crimes — they realize that, 'I have to straighten up and fly right, or I'm going back.' "

Asked if Act 1030's new definition of recidivism is fair — it does, after all, define recidivism as a simple arrest, with or without conviction, and parolees are often arrested and later released without charges when police want to round up the usual suspects following a crime — Sanders points out that the definition used by the U.S. Department of Justice in reaching the numbers on recidivism includes re-arrest without conviction. The new definition, he said, is not an "attempt to slap a label on anyone," but rather an attempt to rectify problems of past reporting in which "lawmakers — and for that matter, the general overall public — have been misled as to what is really going on with our parole system." 

From a philosophical perspective, Sanders said, we need to accept that there is evil in the world and that crime will be perpetrated. "From the standpoint of what could be done, I would say that if I was interested in a simple fix, I would just say end parole, period. Just end it. Don't do parole anymore," he said. "That's a simple fix, and it would have consequences, but I think criminals would really think twice. But I would say that the system can be fixed. We've made great strides to fix it with our laws, and with all the attention we've put on this."

Little Rock City Director Ken Richardson is on the other end of the political spectrum from Sanders, but he also understands there's a recidivism problem. A former coordinator of Little Rock's gang intervention programs, Richardson said that lately he's been seeing the same trends he saw in the gang war days. "What we saw in the early '90s — and it's starting to come back right now — is a dangerous combination of fearlessness and hopelessness. If I don't have hope for the future, and I'm not afraid of the penitentiary or jail, what do we have? We have a ticking time bomb." 

Richardson believes that the key to curbing recidivism isn't stricter sentences or longer jail terms, it's more training and opportunities for people in the inner city. How do you keep someone from committing crimes? You make sure he's got something to lose.

"When I talk to the chief [of police]," Richardson said, "very rarely do I hear him say: 'We arrested a robbery suspect, and he was just getting off his second shift at Captain D's,' or "He was a manager at Popeye's, and when he got off work, he decided to go rob someone.' "

Public safety, Richardson said, is almost always couched in very narrow terms: "It's almost always punitive. It's always: more police, bigger jails. It's never expanded to a more comprehensive definition of public safety." His preferred approach would be to address public safety through community building, while funding and setting up a "solid infrastructure" to help parolees re-enter the community. Having jobs ready for parolees to slot into after workforce training is key, Richardson said, and he contends it could be done with no extra outlay of funds by the city. For example, Richardson said that when infrastructure improvements need to be made in Little Rock, preference could be given to construction companies that hire a certain percentage of parolees from the community.

"Then we're employing people who live in this city," he said. "In a very deliberate way, we're not only re-integrating them into society, we're sending a message that they have value, they have worth, and we're going to demonstrate that by marshaling all our resources to reconnect them."

Richardson said that most of the crimes committed by parolees are "financial crimes" — crimes whose proceeds buy a jug of milk or a month's rent. By excluding felons from jobs and making them hopeless about the future, Richardson believes we've created a system that is set up to make people desperate enough to see prison as a refuge.

"On the inside [of prison], they know where their three meals are coming from," Richardson said. "There's an amount of certainty about what their daily life is going to be like. But then we release them and tell them 'go out there and reintegrate yourself,' without any employment opportunities? That's kind of naive."

Criminal calculus

Dr. Timothy Brown, assistant professor in the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, studies trends in mass incarceration, and teaches graduate level courses in corrections administration. He said that while the use of parole is on the wane, with offenders getting longer and longer sentences, that "tough on crime" approach may actually be causing more problems than it solves.

Increasingly, Brown said, political pressure all over the country has led to resources that had previously been available to ex-cons — employment training, public housing, federal education grants — being taken away.

"So," Brown said, "what we know are crime deterrents — housing, education, and those kinds of things — they've been stripped away in this kind of political moral panic. ... What we're seeing is that it's actually having the reverse effect."

Brown said that recent analysis of crime data shows that while higher incarceration rates will bring down crime in a given area for awhile, once a community hits a "tipping point" of between 40 to 50 percent, the crime rate actually starts going back up.

"By taking these individuals from these neighborhoods, it's having a negative effect," he said. "It's destabilizing the labor market in these neighborhoods." It's all part of what Brown called a "cascade of negative effects" that comes from locking people up and keeping them there.   

Part of the problem, Brown said, is that the American criminal justice system is based on deterrence, the idea that if you make sentences long enough and harsh enough, criminals will think twice before committing crimes. The fault in that kind of thinking, however, is the belief that everyone thinks as rationally as you do. Deterrence theory, Brown said, turns on the idea that all people, including criminals, are "rational actors," and that when we make decisions, we're all making them based on the same outcomes.

"Politicians say: As long as you make sure everybody knows, 'hey, if you do this, you're going to get caught and be put in prison,' people will stop," Brown said. "But what that emphasizes is that we assume everybody does this criminal calculus the same way." That calculus just isn't the same for people who come from communities where poverty and hopelessness are the norm.

Brown believes that the key to curbing recidivism isn't criminals busting rocks in striped jumpsuits, it's finding ways to provide people opportunity, so they'll pause before giving in to the momentary temptation of a car idling at the curb.

"Provide more opportunities," Brown said, "and they'll see that car, and instead of thinking: 'That's a way for me to get out of here and move up,' they'll think, 'That's one of the ways that I can stop myself from moving up or grasping the opportunities I have.' "

The shadows of Little Rock

For Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, parole and recidivism are statewide problems that increasingly end up getting dumped on his doorstep. Because offenders aren't required to be paroled back to the cities or counties where they committed their crimes, many of them wind up in Pulaski County.

"People like to get lost in the shadows," Stodola said, "and when people know the system is broken — and I believe most of these parolees know that the system is unable to monitor their actions and conduct effectively — then where would you want to go? You'd want to go to Pulaski County, where you can get lost in the crowd." 

The "fix" for recidivism and parole absconders, Stodola said, lies in long term and short-term improvements. In the short term, he said, the state needs to fully fund the parole and probation system so it can keep up with felons, including utilizing new electronic monitoring options.

"We've got GPS chips in everything in the world," Stodola said. "It confounds me that the state can't implement ideas [utilizing GPS] on how to keep up with people who are on parole and probation."

The long-term improvements Stodola suggests are more complicated and far-reaching. "What do we do with kids who we know are at-risk early on in their lives?" he said. "That's a societal issue. Some of it ties to poverty, some of it ties to single-parent home life and the struggle of trying to keep a job or two jobs just to stay alive and provide for their children. Those are stresses. ... If we really want to begin to change patterns, we're going to have to interdict the kids at a very young age, and we're going to have to keep up with them through their adolescent years and hopefully keep them in school." 

Stodola notes that since 1994, the city has been putting over $3 million per year into intervention programs, and recently added another $3 million to that for programmatic activities. The state, he said, hasn't been doing the job of keeping up with parolees and probationers, so the city has been doing pre-release analysis "to try and make sure some of these people getting out of the penitentiary have an opportunity to succeed and not reoffend."

While intervention programs are all well and good, all indications point to the idea that it's going to take jobs to make sure parolees stay on the straight and narrow. Stodola said one way of helping those jobs materialize is letting employers know about state tax credits that offer from $2,400 to $8,400 for hiring a person with a felony record. Even with that, Stodola said, there's a clear "disconnect."

"You ask an employer, and they'll tell you that they don't exclude felons," Stodola said. "Then you talk to people who are trying to get them jobs, like the Lewis Burnett [employment] agency, and they say: 'No, they won't hire them.' I've talked to people who want welders. The Department of Correction has a welding program, but the Department of Correction welding program didn't know that people like Lexicon out at the port is looking for welders. There's the communication breakdown."

Another person in Little Rock city government who understands the frustrations that drive the push to stiffen parole is Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas. Asked if the parole system is "broken," Thomas talked about how he'd spent the day fielding calls from West Little Rock homeowners about a recent parolee. On July 3, Thomas said, the man had been sentenced to 40 years in prison, with 20 suspended, for a series of residential burglaries in Little Rock and Pulaski County.

"On Sept. 20, they're getting a letter saying, 'We're going to let him out,' " Thomas said. "So I don't know if I'd say that parole, in and of itself, is broken. The whole process, from start to finish, is very difficult to manage, and it's frustrating for victims and frustrating for officers."

Thomas said that it's hard to pin down one factor that makes parolees break the law again, though factors can include addiction, impulse, and people for whom crime "is their job." 

"There's frustration, there's need, there's the perception that people have things that I should have and by golly, I want them," he said. "There's so many motivations for an individual in addition to [the fact that] there's some people that are just downright mean. That's the way they live, that's the way they're comfortable, it's the only thing they know, and they're going to do it."  

While Thomas laughs that his "phone would ring a lot less" if there was no parole, he said the reality is that almost everybody who goes into prison will, at some point, come out. As long as the system is predicated on release, Thomas said, it makes sense to prepare inmates for life in the free world, so they "have some sense of opportunity and some sense of optimism that they don't have to continue on that pathway. It's more economical in the long run." Incarceration is an expensive proposition, Thomas said, and it's more economical to get more people assistance and support to help them move along on the right path, than to arrest and incarcerate over and over. Thomas suspects parolees aren't being well prepared for the experience of freedom while in the prison system.

"I don't necessarily know that they're better educated," Thomas said. "I don't necessarily know that they're better trained or skilled at a line that would help them get a job. I don't necessarily know that they're psychologically prepared. They may have been in the penitentiary for two or three years, and the wall they're looking at is identical to the wall they looked at the day they walked in, but the world has changed. ... They have to come out and go back to where they came from, and it's a different place."

Thomas is concerned about whether the parole system is adequately staffed as well. "I think if you look at their caseloads," he said, "there's no way in the world that they can keep up with everybody. They're supposed to know where they live. They're supposed to know what they're doing to try and get a job. They're supposed to know their family situation. They're supposed to drug test them. They're supposed to monitor them. But if you've got 60 or 80 you're supposed to see in a month, and you've got volumes of paperwork and a multitude of hearings and court to go to and everything else, it's extremely difficult for anybody." 

Thomas likens Arkansas's current parole system to a car with three wheels: if you never drive it on four as the designers intended, how do you know if it works or not? "If you're constantly short-staffed, if you're constantly under-budgeted, you never really have a chance to say: What is the benchmark where you can say this is working or not working?"

Dignity Inc.

Down on 12th Street in a second-floor room at the Willie L. Hinton Neighborhood Resource Center — a stately old brick school building with wide hallways and high ceilings — the non-profit Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders sees between 60 and 70 people a day. Some days, the desperate line outside the door stretches down the hallway. Many of those waiting are parolees only a few days out of prison, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Leta Anthony is the director of Lewis-Burnett. She radiates both heartfelt compassion and a drill sergeant's air of hard-won authority. The high-collared, no-nonsense teachers that once ruled the old school building where Anthony works would have likely found a kindred spirit in her. As for Anthony, she's in the dignity business.

"All too often, even with service providers, they strip them of their dignity when they come in looking for services," Anthony said. "If nothing else, we give them their dignity and sense of hope. If a person has no hope, you have no beginning."

Most parolees, she said, just want to get a job and make an honest living. When they turn back to crime, she said, many of them do so out of desperation. If we want to fix recidivism, she contends, we as a society are shooting ourselves in the foot by excluding them.  

"We don't have enough alternative solutions," she said. "Everything is just too cut and dried: incarcerate, incarcerate, incarcerate. You destroy peoples' lives. And if you are ever in the system, you never really get out."

Though communities in Central Arkansas talk about wanting to help parolees find jobs, Anthony said there's a literal disconnect. "The port [of Little Rock] has some major, major jobs," Anthony said. "So does Maumelle. But people can't get there. Even everyday people can't get there, because we're not dealing with the transportation issues. ... There are transportation grants that will allow them to extend [bus] transportation to those areas. The city tosses about ideas about getting a railway that comes out to UALR. But you're not trying to get people who need jobs to the port? We need some mindset changes on the City Board."

Darlene Lewis, founder and executive director of Lewis-Burnett, agrees. A former welfare recipient who founded the agency out of her home in 1987 as a way to help family members and people in her neighborhood find jobs, Burnett said that over and over, they see people who go to prison when they're 19 and want to do right as they get older, but can't erase the past.

"When they try to get a job, they can't," Lewis said. "It's a cycle. From there, they wind up robbing and stealing because they have no way of feeding themselves or taking care of their children." Many apartments, Lewis said, won't rent to a parolee because they have a felony in their background. Even if the apartments will rent to a felon, most parolees don't qualify for federal housing assistance. And if a parolee can find someone to rent to them and pay rent without government help?

"Then they want to run a credit check," she said. "Well, if you've been in prison for the last seven years, what kind of credit do you have? Then you have to have a job that makes at least three times the amount of the rent. That's not going to happen with people right out of prison."

Arkansas, Anthony said, is not readying parolees for the realities of life once they get out. While services like Lewis-Burnett try to fill the gap, the money isn't there to provide the services that are needed. "Pre-release [training] is key," Anthony said, "but it's not working the way it should right now. It really does not connect people with the services they need getting out. They don't have a real plan to know where to go for services," leaving many parolees to feel lost and desperate once they get out. 

As for how to fix parole, Anthony said the state needs to "clean house legislatively," and start over, drawing on the knowledge of service providers. "Simultaneously," Anthony said, "I'd look at where we're spending money, and what we're spending it on — what works and what doesn't."

Day to day, week to week, Lewis and Anthony see all types at Lewis-Burnett, from the kids so angry they "just want to fight," to the ones broken by addiction, to the long-term incarcerated who know nothing of the world they've been dropped into. They see a lot of regret, Lewis said.

"They come in, and sit down, and tell you the reason why it happened," Lewis said. "You know they're sincere when you see the tears rolling down their face, saying: 'If I had to do it again to feed my family, I'd do it again.' Have you ever had a kid come to you and say, 'I'm hungry, Momma' and you have no way to feed him? I've been there."

"These people do deserve a second chance," Anthony said. "This person was put into a circumstance that, I'm not sure if I'd been in that circumstance, I wouldn't have committed the crime. All we're asking you to do is take a chance."

'Let them get to know Roger'

One of those that Lewis and Anthony are hoping employers will take a chance on is Roger Hardesty, 57. You can't sugarcoat what he did to wind up on parole. At his November 2000 trial, Hardesty testified that in December the year prior, after his neighbor Mark Jones burst into his trailer in what Hardesty testified was a "drunken rage," Hardesty hit Jones several times in the head with a pipe wrench. Hardesty said he didn't know Jones was dead until the next morning.

Though Hardesty claimed self-defense, he was destitute at the time and represented by a public defender. A jury eventually found him guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. Released in 2006, he's on parole until 2015.

Hardesty grew up running heavy equipment on his family's farm in Oklahoma and worked construction before he went to jail. He quickly found employment with a construction company when he first got out, and moved up to foreman once they learned he could read blueprints, run a backhoe, and understand grade and elevation, but lost the construction job after his alcoholism caught up with him.

He's been sober two years now, but he's been struggling to find work ever since. Most recently, he worked seven months at the Pulaski County Animal Shelter, earning minimum wage for "scooping poop" while going to a sober-living program that would transport him to and from work. When he graduated from the program earlier this year, however, his ride to work went away as well.

"My means of transportation to and from vanished, and the bus doesn't run that far," he said. "If the bus had run that far, I'd have kept my job, but the bus stops a mile and half, two miles away from it. I'm not an age to walk two miles every morning and two miles every evening to and from. I'm afraid I'd fall out."

Hardesty has been homeless off and on since 2011, living in shelters or on the streets. He's thin and stooped, having shed 10 pounds since losing his last job, he said. Because he's homeless, he's now required to come in to see his parole officer every Friday. Sometimes he struggles even to find bus fare to get back and forth to his PO's office in North Little Rock. The week before we spoke, he didn't make it, but called and explained. His PO is a good guy, Hardesty said.

Hardesty, both on his own, and with the help of Lewis-Burnett, has never stopped looking for a job, a process he called frustrating. He said that while some applications ask if the applicant has been convicted of a felony in the past seven years, most ask if he's ever been convicted of a felony. He won't lie, he said, because that would jeopardize his life on the outside, and he'd rather be dead than go back to jail. Instead, he checks the box, and in the few lines where the applicant is asked to "please explain," he writes: "Will explain to interviewer."

His phone never rings. He would take any job, he said. He happily shoveled dog crap for minimum wage until that ended, so any job would be welcome. Instead, he has become the ghost of Jacob Marley, dragging his sins through the world at the end of invisible chains.

"Ms. Anthony has sent me on job application after job application, besides me looking through the papers and calling and going from one place to another," Hardesty said, his voice breaking and tears welling up in Leta Anthony's tidy office. "I just get so wore out. I come in here and shed my tears on her shoulder."

Still, Hardesty said, even life on the streets is better than prison. Even homelessness, he said, is better than stealing. "I've had plenty of opportunities," he said. "I choose not to. Just like I choose not to drink. I choose not to."

So he goes on the interviews. He fills out the applications. He crosses his fingers for "seven years" instead of "ever." And when he has to fill out those few, spare lines marked "please explain," he writes in "will explain to interviewer."

"Let them talk to me," he said. "Let them get to know Roger. Not what Roger did 13 years ago. I've paid for that. And I'm still paying."

*A previous version of this story mistakenly said Rhonda Sharp was the new director of the Department of Community Correction. Sheila Sharp is the director. Rhonda Sharp is a former spokesperson for the DCC.


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