Senate Judiciary approves criminal justice reform, guns on campus bills

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 504 views 

A day of heavy-lifting at the State Capitol on Tuesday saw a Senate panel advance two heavily amended bills to overhaul the state’s criminal justice reform system and allow anyone over 25 years old to carry guns on the campus of state colleges and universities with some “active shooter” training.

The Senate Judiciary Committee ended one of the busiest days of the 2017 session with “do pass” recommendations for Senate Bill 136 and House Bill 1249, two of the more widely-debated measures of the 91st General Assembly.

Shortly after the Senate convened following a busy calendar that included a visit from U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., the committee took up SB346 by Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson and Democrat Rep. Clarke Tucker, both of Little Rock. Hutchinson told the Senate committee he and Tucker have been involved in five straight weeks of negotiations on the legislation backed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, with input from state prison officials, local prosecutors, county judges, sheriffs and other interested parties.

Under the bill, part of a plan introduced by Hutchinson earlier this year, several areas of the state’s criminal justice system would receive an overhaul. Among the plans include increasing funding for specialty courts including drug and veteran’s courts, reforming the qualifications to serve on the state’s parole board and allowing police and Arkansas Department of Community Correction officers to do warrantless searches on probation and parolees.

Still, Sen. Hutchinson spent most of the meeting defending blowback against Act 570 of 2011, which several lawmakers say has led to state prison overcrowding that has spilled over to county jails and high recidivism rates among the state’s growing inmate population. Other questions centered around how the state would be able to pay for legislation that would allow re-offenders back into society.

“Everybody is going to get out at some point,” Sen. Hutchinson said in defense of SB346. “Unless we build 50 new prisons and lock a Class B felon up for life, they are going to get out. The question is how do we best control that behavior. And quite frankly, sending technical violators to prison is the biggest recipe for disaster you can imagine.”

Representatives of the Association of Arkansas Counties and Arkansas County Judges Association that attended the meeting also spoke in support of the bill. Mark Whitmore, chief counsel for the counties’ association, told the Senate panel that his group supported the legislation because it addresses the growing problem of mentally ill persons that end up in prisons and county jails across the state.

“We are warehousing our mentally ill and what this (bill) is driving at is that … we are doing a poor job of addressing that,” Whitmore said. “What the parole board is trying to do doesn’t function when our jails and prisons are full. What this bill attempts to do is try to better utilize the 1,600 beds that Community Corrections has so that you can get people in there for 45 day stays or 90 day stays and get them rehabilitated.”

Judge Robert Griffin of Independence County testified that county officials in his district have taken money from county roads and other needs to pay for overburdened jails. He said SB346 promotes cost efficiency by getting help for people with mental illnesses.

“And in that is a constant state of turmoil to fund the jails as they currently are run,” Griffin said. “One of the significant things we have seen is there is a lot of mental illness and other dependency issues, and if you examine the bill – the violent offenders are excluded from this program.”

Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, questioned the bill sponsors and the groups supporting the legislation about the process that led to enacting of Act 570, which was known as the “Public Safety Improvement Act.”

“You guys supported Act 570 the last time and you guys know how bad a bill that was,” Collins-Smith said. “I guess what I am saying now is … it is concerning because we want to make sure the associations, when they stand together and support bills not because they’ve been pressured to, or someone held their budgets over their head, or that someone says ‘it is a great bill – so just do it because I said so.’”

In closing for his bill, Hutchinson said Act 570 failed because the state failed to sufficiently fund it and bad parts of the bill were implemented. He said Gov. Hutchinson has set aside $5 million annually in his $5.5 billion biennial budget to fund the new criminal justice reform measure.

“This is a lot better than (Act) 570. All we are doing is re-shuffling our resources so that we can keep the bad guys in prison longer and free up jails for what they are intended to do – which is detain people until they have trial,” said Sen. Hutchinson, chair of the Senate panel. “In our counties right now, there’s people who are back and should not be released awaiting trial because there is not jail space – bad people released on their own recognizance because there is nowhere to put them.”

After the hour-long afternoon debate, the Senate panel advanced the measure that has been amended four times to the full Senate. Last week, the House voted 79-5 to approve the measure that is one of the few key bills carried by a Democrat.

House Bill 1249 also received a do-pass recommendation from the Senate committee after Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, successfully attached a new amendment to a thrice revised bill requiring public colleges and universities to allow concealed carry permit holders to bring their weapons on campus. Last week, the bill was re-referred by to the committee after Hutchinson attached what sponsors called a “hostile amendment” on the Senate floor that would require concealed carry permit holders to obtain at least 16 hours of active shooter training designed by the Arkansas State Police.

The new amendment, approved by primary sponsor Rep. Charlies Collins, R-Fayetteville, will now allow any permit holder 25 years or older to carry a weapon on campus after undergoing the active trainer program and paying a nominal fee.

“I believe the concealed carry law in Arkansas is established. It is popular and people love it,” Garner said. “We are giving them an avenue today to exercise their constitutional rights with some very minor restrictions and some very good training.”

The bill now goes back to the Senate for approval.