Gov. Sanders announces 3,000-bed prison plans, 100% violent crime sentences

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 3,377 views 

A judicial reform and prison construction legislation package will add 3,000 prison beds and require the most violent offenders to serve 100% of their sentences, Gov. Sarah Sanders announced Monday (March 27).

Sanders said constructing the prison space would cost an estimated $470 million. Annual operating costs would be $31 million.

Arkansas Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri said the department is looking at adding 400 beds in the coming months to provide extra space.

Sanders announced the package alongside its primary sponsors, Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, along with Attorney General Tim Griffin.

The prison construction part of the package will be funded through a bill going through the Joint Budget Committee. Sanders said the last time the state of Arkansas dedicated funding for more prison space was in 2005 when her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, was in office.

The judicial reforms are included in Senate Bill 495, the Protect Arkansas Act, which was filed Monday.

The 132-page bill would require offenders convicted of crimes including murder, rape, human trafficking and child sex abuse to serve 100% of their sentences. That arrangement would go into effect Jan. 1, 2024, Gilmore said afterwards. Those convicted of lesser violent crimes would serve at least 85% of their sentences starting in 2025. The extra year would give the state time to address prison capacity issues.

An offender who commits a new felony while released on parole would serve the remainder of their sentence plus a penalty.

“Some will complain that these new punishments are too tough,” Sanders said. “To those critics, I say that’s Arkansas justice. It’s tough, but it’s fair. My administration is not going to let unrepentant criminals terrorize our entire state. We’re not going to tolerate the failed status quo. The first duty of government is to protect life, to protect liberty and the property of our citizens. When we fail at that, nothing else matters.”

The 85% sentence requirement would be similar to federal law. Griffin said criminals believe the state system is a “laughingstock.” He said the Wynne police chief told him that when criminals are arrested, the first question they ask is whether they will be in the state or federal system.

“If it’s state they laugh because they’ll be right back out. If it’s federal, they cry,” he said.

Griffin said the state has been building prison space for a long time by quietly expanding county jails, where state prisoners are being sent. The result effectively has been the removal of misdemeanor crimes from the criminal code because there is no space for those kinds of offenders. He said the legislation will move violent felons into state prisons where they will have access to the programs they need.

“We need to rehabilitate those who are open to rehabilitation,” he said. “We need to incapacitate those who are not.”

In announcing the bill, Sanders shared stories of Arkansans harmed by repeat offenders: Stuttgart Police Department Sgt. Donald Scoby, who was shot in the line of duty; a Little Rock woman who was killed over a petty argument; a Russellville woman who was sexually assaulted in her car for more than an hour; and a man who was beaten and left to die in Hot Springs.

“In some misguided attempt at compassion, we’ve decided that hardened criminals belong in society, not in prison,” she said. “The resulting crime wave has been completely and wholly predictable. Today, we stop the revolving door. If you are a murderer, if you are a rapist, if you are an abuser, we will put you in prison, and you’re going to stay there for a very, very long time.”

While constructing extra prison space and ensuring convicts serve more of their sentences, the legislative package also will develop new mental health programs and delay prison fine repayment to reduce recidivism and ease inmates’ reentry into society, Sanders said. She said the state’s chief workforce officer will work with the Department of Corrections to develop training programs aligned with in-demand jobs.

“To those inmates who show a genuine desire to fix their life, Arkansas will help you get clean, get educated, and get a job once you’re out of prison,” she said.

An additional $20 million will be dedicated to recruit and retain correctional officers. The package would also create a new school for state troopers and provide $5 million for additional overtime pay.

The package also will include a new victims’ bill of rights that is not part of SB495, which could be considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee as early as Wednesday, the bill’s sponsors said.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas released a statement criticizing the bill.

“If Arkansas really needs to lock up more people than many countries do, then we are failing,” said DPA Chairman Grant Tennille. “Building a new prison is just an admission of failure. Failure to care for children, failure to educate our people, failure to invest in Arkansas in all of the ways we know can prevent crime. Democrats in this legislative session and previous sessions have put forward bills to make Arkansas safer. Sanders’ plan will result in more nonviolent arrests, more mentally ill Arkansans in jail rather than in treatment, and less money for the services our people actually need.”