Sentencing bill advances; prosecutors, sheriffs, county judges support

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,661 views 

A bill requiring Arkansans convicted of the most serious crimes to serve 100% of their sentences passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote Wednesday (March 29).

Senate Bill 495 by Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, the Protect Arkansas Act, is part of Gov. Sarah Sanders’ Safer, Stronger Arkansas Legislative Package.

The Protect Arkansas Act requires individuals convicted of certain crimes, including capital murder, murder in the first degree, rape, and child pornography possession, among others, to serve 100% of their sentences.

Persons convicted of a long list of other serious crimes would have to serve 85% of their sentences, but could receive “earned release credits” allowing them to reduce all or part of the other 15%.

Those crimes include, among others, second degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, first degree sexual assault, partial-birth abortions, and performing an abortion in violation of state law.

Criminals would be eligible to be released after serving 50% or 75% of their sentences if granted by the Post-Prison Transfer Board, which would take the place of the Arkansas Parole Board.

“This bill, I think, is not the end-all, be-all. It is definitely the start,” Gilmore said in closing for the bill. “It is something that I’m assuming will have to be tweaked over time, but it is certainly a start that is much needed.”

Representatives of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, and the County Judges’ Association of Arkansas expressed support for the bill.

Prosecutors said all elected 28 prosecuting attorneys support the bill, and that prosecutors had input in drafting it. Matt Durrett of the Fayetteville-based Fourth Judicial District said it would add clarity to the system because jurors, who often ask how much time an inmate will serve, now will know how long. Nathan Smith of the Bentonville-based 19th West Judicial District said the bill will offer more transparency.

Daniel Shue of the Fort Smith-based 12th District said the bill probably will result in prosecutors trying more cases. Arkansas is one of five states where juries make sentencing recommendations. Prosecutors will have to see what juries do under the new system before they start making plea offers.

Not included in the bill, but part of the package, is a 3,000-bed prison that would cost $470 million to build. It would be needed to handle prisoners serving longer time behind bars and would reduce the number of state inmates being housed in county jails because there is no room in the state’s prisons. It will come with an estimated $31 million annual operating cost.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, the Senate chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said the money to build the prison space will be set aside now and be released later with a letter from the governor and approval by the Arkansas Legislative Council, the large group of legislators who meet between sessions. It could take three years or more to build a new prison.

Saline County Sheriff Rodney Wright, president of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, said his group supports the bill. His jail currently houses 43 inmates waiting to go to the Department of Corrections.

“We feel like this bill starts to move the needle, and we’ve go to start somewhere,” he said.

Ashley County Judge Jim Hudson said the County Judges’ Association “totally” supports the bill.

Also part of the package is a Victim’s Bill of Rights that would require voters to pass a constitutional amendment in November 2024. Senate Joint Resolution 10 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, is scheduled to be considered Thursday (March 30) by the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. There is already a statutory victims’ bill of rights on the Arkansas books that allows victims to be notified of release dates and transfers of their assailants as well as providing victim impact statements during the sentencing phase of trials.

Gilmore said the Protect Arkansas Act would be a “game-changer.” He said Arkansas has one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates, which he blamed on a revolving door that allows repeat violent offenders to return to the streets.

He said the current system releases prisoners after they have served only one-sixth of their sentence, which disincentivizes them from engaging in prison programs that would lead to self improvement.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned how inmates would be incentivized to better themselves when they already would be serving 85% of their sentences. She asked why they would take part in prison programs if they can just wait out the last 15%.

Similarly, Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, noted the 85% requirement mirrors the maximum sentences allowed under federal law. He said the federal government – and most states – do not go farther because inmates need some incentives to inspire them to take steps to get out early. He noted that prisoners who spend 100% of their maximum sentences behind bars would be released without supervision.

Gilmore said the toughest sentences pertain to terrible offenses, such as sexually grooming a child and first degree murder. Offenders are prone to repeat the crime and should be locked away from their communities.

Tucker referred to an impact statement saying the bill would result in 1,465 additional prisoners in 2033 above the 2,677 projected without the bill. It would cost $163 million over 10 years and $34 million in 2033, according to projections. He noted the state is struggling to keep its correctional staff slots filled.

He also argued the state needs smarter prison policies to address its crime problem. He said Arkansas has one of the nation’s highest average times spent in prison.

“There’s a lot of good in this bill, but the thrust of it is, we need to lock these folks up longer,” he said. He later added, “Instead of trying to figure out alternatives, we’re just pulling that lever even harder.”

Tucker said nationally, only 46% of violent crimes are reported, and in Arkansas, 39% of those reported result in an arrest. Only 16% of those arrested are under supervision.

“If you put all those numbers together, the result is that if we locked up every single person on probation and parole, that violent crime goes down by 2.87%,” he said.

Tucker later told reporters the state should be more serious about arresting violent criminals and should do more to prevent criminals from reoffending. He said studies have shown the best deterrent is certainty of arrest, not sentence length, but Arkansas has a low clearance rate – arrests for violent crimes – of 39%.

He said the state does need more beds temporarily, particularly in the Department of Community Corrections, which won’t be seeing more beds. Other states have seen decreases in prison populations using other policies. Texas closed 10 prisons and also reduced its crime rate, he noted.

Gilmore said the bill strikes the right balance in preparing inmates to leave prison. He noted that the bill includes the creation of a recidivism task force, of which he said he hopes Tucker becomes a member.

He said the goal should be to keep off the streets the people Arkansans are afraid of. He said the bill is a “really good initial step” toward addressing a longstanding problem.

“I feel confident that we will see this as almost a living, breathing document that will continue to change and evolve as it needs to over the course of decades to come,” Gilmore said. “So trying to address a decades-old problem with one bill is not going to happen, but it’s certainly a start that needs to happen to continue down the road.”