SPECIAL REPORT: Domestic abusers released early from prison due to COVID-19

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Fayetteville, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The State of Arkansas is releasing hundreds of non-violent offenders from prison due to COVID-19. But after going through thousands of pages of court records, we found several people might be getting out on a technicality.

(Several names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of victims and the suspects who have served their time and are now out of prison lawfully.)

For years, Debbie received violent threats from a family member.

“I’m not the only person this has happened to. In one year, he raped six females,” she said.

Debbie is one of his victims. It has had lasting effects on her family.

“He’s a menace to society. How are you going to release him?”

“Two months after I was raped, my daughter, my middle one, she almost tried to commit suicide. It’s been a battle, up and down up and down with me and my family,” she said.

Now her abuser is out of prison; granted early release due to COVID-19. It is a privilege meant for non-violent, non-sexual offenders.

“Three of his parole officers have stated he’s a menace to society. He’s a menace to society. How are you going to release him?” Debbie said.

But The Arkansas Department of Correction says this man qualifies because his accusers didn’t file in criminal court. They filed civil cases to ask for orders of protection. Five people have active orders of protection against him. But he was in prison on a non-violent crime.

“A lot of domestic violence survivors haven’t had to opportunity or just wanted to make a break and just left and never pressed charges,” Development Director of Northwest Arkansas Women’s Shelter Stacy Seger said.

More than 900 inmates are now approved for early release due to COVID-19.

“I’ve asked for a review of all non-violent offenders, who are non-sex offenders that are due for release within the next six months,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) announced back in April.

We went through the records of the inmates approved under this order, and we found dozens of non-violent offenders with a violent past. Many have Orders of Protection against them for claims of domestic abuse.

“There’s a lot of complicating factors in domestic abuse, like drug use,” Seger said.

When a woman breaks away from abuse, she can find refuge with organizations like the Northwest Arkansas Women’s Shelter.

“A lot of times we hear how valuable it was to them to be able to sleep at night and not worry about who was going to come in the door,” Seger said.

But she says that comfort shifts when an abuser gets out of prison.

“What they all have in common is that sudden shock of wondering if they’re going to be safe. Is that person going to find me? Is my abuser going to be able to track me down?” Seger said.

I talked to another victim, Heather. She told me her abuser should never have been set free. He was criminally charged with a violent crime: domestic battery. But he avoided jail time on that charge by taking a plea deal. The battery charge was dropped. So he was only sentenced for drugs, a non-violent offense.

“It’s not unusual for a defense attorney to come back and say, my client will plead to this but says he’s not guilty to that, so if you can drop that he’ll plead guilty,” Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said.

Of the 500 plus cases we reviewed, we found 45 suspects who either had orders of protection against them or had a domestic battery charge that was pleaded down. That does not include plea deals we found that eliminated other violent charges like aggravated assault with a firearm and 2nd-degree battery on a law enforcement officer.

“We shouldn’t have to fear for our lives like that.”

Durrett says these types of deals occur for several reasons.

“You may have a situation where you have a victim that’s not cooperative or doesn’t want to proceed on a charge,” he explained.

Seger says that is very common in domestic cases.

“A victim will return to the abuser seven times before they are able to actually break free of that abuse situation,” she said.

Those who have broken free, like Debbie and Heather, must now rely on their Orders of Protection.

“We shouldn’t have to fear for our lives like that, especially when we didn’t do nothing wrong,” Debbie said.

Adding to Debbie’s frustrations, her abuser has already skipped out on parole. Just three days after his release, he was listed as a parole absconder. And he is not alone. We went back through the list of 900+ inmates and found 36 who have absconded already. Seven of them are labeled as maximum supervision risk.

There is a way you can get notifications about an inmate or parolees status. It is a free, anonymous phone service called Vine.

On the issue of domestic abusers receiving early release, we reached out to the governor multiple times for an interview and never heard back. We also asked the Department of Corrections for an interview. It declined but sent us this statement instead.

“As we’ve discussed previously, the Board of Corrections approved a list of inmates eligible for early release using a thoughtful and deliberate process. To be considered eligible, an inmate had to be currently serving time for a non-violent offense, as defined by law.

Previous, older violent convictions for which the inmate has discharged his/her sentence would not disqualify an inmate from consideration. No one convicted of registerable sex offenses, however, was considered for release, regardless of whether the individual is currently serving time for the offense or another.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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