On Tuesday, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed expanded criminal justice bills aimed at overhauling Arkansas’ parole system and holding dealers of fentanyl and other dangerous drugs responsible for overdose deaths accountable.
“We will not rest until we hold criminals accountable in Arkansas and keep the law on the books,” the Republican governor said during a news conference. “We can and must do everything we can to protect the people of our state.”
Senate Bill 495, known as the Arkansas Protection Act, would require people convicted of violent crimes to serve a majority if not all of their sentences in prison.
Along with restructuring the state’s parole system, the 131-page measure includes provisions aimed at supporting child victims of crimes, preparing imprisoned people to enter the labor market and suspending court fines for incarcerated defendants for 120 days after their release from custody.
House Bill 1456, or the Fentanyl Enforcement and Accountability Act of 2023, provides for “death by delivery” offenses with severe criminal penalties.
Both bills were sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Gasway, R-Paragould, and Senator Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and have received approval from Attorney General Tim Griffin.
During the press conference, Sanders confirmed plans to add 3,000 beds to the state’s prison system to ease the backlog of inmates held in county jails. The jail expansion and its bills are part of a broader and safer public safety package for Arkansas that Sanders has introduced.
Under the Arkansas Protection Act, people convicted of 18 of the most violent crimes in state law, including rape and capital murder, will have to serve the full term of their sentences in prison. The new law requires courts to add a period of post-release probation to these cases if the defendants are not already sentenced to the legal maximum for their crimes.
People convicted of 53 less violent felonies such as second-degree murder, first-degree battery, or sexual indecency with a child must serve 85% of their sentence before they become eligible for supervised release.
If a person convicted of an offense that requires them to serve 100% or 85% of their sentence violates the terms of their release, they will have to serve the remainder of their previous sentence in addition to the entire sentence they received for the violation.
Those convicted of crimes not covered in the bill could be eligible to serve 50% or 25% of their sentence in prison depending on a grid or gravity schedule established by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission and approved by the legislature.
To allow state prisons and courts to prepare for the changes included in the bill, the law would require offenders convicted of the most serious violent crimes to serve 100% of their sentences as of January 1. For people convicted of lesser crimes, the new post-issue supervision system will come into effect from January 1, 2025.
While Democratic lawmakers have expressed support for parts of the legislation, including support for specialized courts, they have expressed opposition to reforming the provisions. Those who spoke out against the bill pointed to studies showing longer sentences do not lead to a decrease in crime, and called on lawmakers to invest more in prevention, treatment and repatriation programmes.
The Fentanyl Enforcement and Accountability Act of 2023 includes an “aggravated death by birth” charge for people who knowingly deliver fentanyl to a person and the person dies as a result of taking the drug. This offense is punishable by imprisonment from 20 to 60 years or life.
If a dealer provides fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, or cocaine to a minor and the minor dies, the dealer will also be guilty of “aggravated death by delivery.” If the person is three years older than the deceased minor, the offender faces a prison sentence of 20 to 60 years or life. Otherwise, the person will face life imprisonment.
Those who commit the crime of “predatory marketing of fentanyl to minors” by packaging the drug in a way that will attract children could face up to life in prison and a $1 million fine.