Criminal law

The state Senate approves a criminal justice bill and sends it to the House of Representatives


The Arkansas Senate on Monday handily approved a broad criminal justice bill aimed at revamping Arkansas’ parole system and requiring people convicted of the most serious felonies to serve the full term of their sentences in prison.

The Senate voted 29-5 to send Senate Bill 495, introduced by Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, to the state House for further action. If enacted into law, this action would create the Arkansas Protection Act. The bill was introduced eight days ago.

Besides restructuring the state’s parole system, SB495 aims to create a task force to study Arkansas’ high recidivism rate, launch a mental health pilot program through the state’s Department of Human Services and increase penalties for some charges.

The 132-page bill includes sections intended to provide incarcerated parents greater access to their children and to allow the Administrative Office of Courts to contract lawyers to work in specialized courts.

Supporters asserted that the bill was necessary to provide tougher sentences for people convicted of serious crimes and to provide clarity to juries on how long a person would spend in prison based on their sentence.

Opponents countered that extending prison sentences does little to deter future crime, and pointed to Arkansas’ already high incarceration rate.

“This bill will make Arkansas safer,” Gilmore told the Senate.

“It will protect our communities,” he said. “It will provide the tools for our law enforcement officials to do so. It will hold criminals who commit violence accountable, while… also providing avenues for these prisoners to better themselves, prepare for release, and be productive citizens in our society.” “.

Gilmore said the legislation includes provisions for mental health treatment, greater prioritization of workforce training and family considerations.

He said he worked for about six months with several people on the legislation.

“We’ve tried to craft some policies that I think are going to be game-changers in this state,” he said. “We are now witnessing a state of chaos, and I believe that this bill will bring order to this chaos.”

Little Rock Democratic Senator Clark Tucker said Arkansas has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and is imprisoning people for longer periods of time for certain crimes.

He said the state must boost the rate of removal of reported violent crime if it wants to deter violent crime in Arkansas, and this law does not address that.

Missouri increased substance abuse treatment for people on parole, improved supervision practices for people on probation and parole, invested more in local law enforcement to target violent crime, reduced recidivism rates by nearly 20% and reduced the expected prison population by more than 3,700. Tucker said.

“What (the bill) says is lock them up and throw away the key, which is a cheap policy but a very expensive policy,” he said.

But Sen. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, said the bill represented a “comprehensive package of commonsense reforms” that would lead to a safer and more competitive state of Arkansas.

Senator Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, acknowledged that “we can do better than SB495, (but) we can’t do better right now and it’s important that we act.”

Gilmore told senators that if the Senate does not pass his bill, the state will continue down an unsustainable path.

He told the Senate, “Crime is rampant. It’s out of control, and I’m asking you to support a bill that will change that.” “I am asking you to support a bill that supports our victims.”

Gilmore said the bill also stands with law enforcement officers.

Under the bill, criminals convicted of the most violent crimes, including rape and premeditated murder, must serve 100% of their sentences. Those convicted of less violent crimes such as second-degree murder, first-degree battery, or sexual indecency with a child will serve 85% of their sentence before becoming eligible for supervised release.

Persons convicted of felonies not covered in the bill could be eligible to serve 50% or 25% of their sentence depending on a grid or gravity schedule established by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission and approved by the Arkansas legislature.

Under the state’s current system, Gilmore told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, offenders could serve only a sixth of their sentences in prison. He noted that the reduced sentences may prevent prisoners from completing programs in prison intended to assist in their rehabilitation.

To become eligible for early release under the bill, Gilmore said, offenders would have to earn credits by participating in programs in prison.

The bill would require the state Board of Corrections to establish rules setting guidelines for the accumulation of earned release credits for work practices, job responsibilities, good behavior, and participation in rehabilitation activities.

Sebastian County Attorney Dan Shaw told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that the bill has the unanimous support of 28 elected Arkansas district attorneys. Prosecutors said they appreciated the transparency of the verdicts this procedure would provide to the jury. Some have raised concerns about how the bill would change penalties for certain crimes.

The Arkansas Sentencing Commission’s impact statement for SB495 includes projections that the bill could result in the state seeing more than $163.8 million in costs over the next 10 years associated with providing additional inmate care.

Gilmore estimated that other provisions in the bill could cost close to $10 million.

To allow the state’s Department of Corrections to prepare for the changes included in the bill, Gilmore said, offenders convicted of the most serious violent crimes would be required to serve 100% of their sentences starting Jan. 1. For people convicted of lesser crimes, the new post-issue supervision system will come into effect from January 1, 2025.

And last week, Sanders announced plans to add 3,000 new beds to the Arkansas prison system. At the time, Joe Brophyri, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said officials expected to add just under 400 beds in the coming months between the corrections department and the community correction department.

Information for this article was contributed by Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat.


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