The purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect public safety while respecting human dignity and everyone's constitutional rights.
Our state legislators have before them a slate of proposals that would go a long way toward achieving both those goals. They should act expeditiously to turn those proposals into laws.
Recent events have provided a clear demonstration that we need to reform policing in our state and country. To do that, we must transform police culture, remove structural barriers to good policing, and eliminate unnecessary criminalization.
Those elements complement and reinforce each other. Only by tackling all three will we see the kind of change essential to providing a measure of justice to those who have been the victims of police misconduct, as well as a path to better policing for the many good law enforcement officers constrained by a broken system.
Here's what the Legislature can do on policing:
• Prohibit the use of chokeholds by police and correctional officers unless the use of deadly force is justified.
• Require law enforcement officers who see another officer using excessive force to intervene, and require an immediate report to their supervisors.
For too long, bad policies and a few bad officers have damaged relationships between the police and the people they are sworn to protect.
These reforms have buy-in from many in the law enforcement community in Arkansas and across the country because they're effective in restoring those relationships and good for both communities and good police officers. As Gov. Asa Hutchinson said of his recently announced task force on police training and standards, "This is not to take away from law enforcement, but to enhance law enforcement."
While these reforms alone will not fix every injustice, they are an essential starting point if we are to live up to our shared ideal of equal justice for all.
Beyond policing reforms, the Legislature can do more on criminal justice reform.
State law allows individuals with certain criminal convictions to get their record sealed after a period of time unless they spent any of their sentence in maximum security. Lawmakers should remove this unnecessary exclusion and allow those who served a portion of their sentence behind bars to be eligible to get their record sealed. The formerly incarcerated face severe challenges in re-entering society. Allowing for the sealing of records would help ensure that people don't face unneeded barriers to getting a job, finding a place to live, and restarting their lives.
In 2011, the Legislature passed reforms that reduced the maximum sentence for some drug laws but made these changes only for sentences in the future. This has caused large and unnecessary discrepancies between those sentenced before and after the measure was enacted. Lawmakers should allow the Parole Board to calculate the parole eligibility date for those sentenced before 2011 as if they were sentenced today. This would bring more equity to these release decisions and allow them to be based on public safety, rather than an arbitrary date. With covid-19 sweeping through our jails and prisons, we should prioritize the limited space those convicted of the most serious offenses.
Our criminal justice system is failing in its fundamental duty to keep communities safe and protect the dignity of those it serves. That failure has left countless broken families and communities in its wake.
There's a better way.
We urge the state Legislature and the governor to act swiftly to enact reforms that will protect our communities and unlock second chances for people who want to contribute to their communities.
Kevin Hunt is the founder of Lessons Learned. Ryan Norris is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas.