Arkansas House passes parole overhaul bill

Bill would keep criminals jailed for longer

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, presents Senate Bill 495, which would create the Protect Arkansas Act, during the House session on Thursday at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, presents Senate Bill 495, which would create the Protect Arkansas Act, during the House session on Thursday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Arkansas House on Thursday advanced a broad criminal justice bill intended to overhaul the state's parole system and require people convicted of serious crimes to serve most if not all of their sentences in prison.

Senate Bill 495, which would establish the Protect Arkansas Act, passed with a vote of 82-14. The bill, which is part of a wide-ranging criminal justice package backed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin, returns to the Senate for consideration of an amendment.

Sponsor Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, presented the bill as a much-needed fix for the state's parole system.

"The current parole system that we have in Arkansas is broken," he said. "What we have in Arkansas right now are people who are sentenced for serious violent felonies who are only serving a fraction of their time."

Gazaway pointed to several cases of offenders who were released from prison before completing their full sentences and went on to commit violent crimes.

Beyond restructuring the parole system, Gazaway noted his 131-page bill features other provisions, including supporting child victims of crimes, preparing incarcerated people to enter the workforce and suspending court fines for incarcerated defendants for 120 days after they are released from custody.

"This is what I would consider a very comprehensive and balanced approach," he said.

While Democratic lawmakers voiced support for parts of the legislation, including those that would bolster specialty courts, they expressed strong opposition to the sentencing overhaul.

Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, recognized solutions are needed for the state's high crime rate but said research has repeatedly shown that lengthening prison sentences does not lead to a reduction in crime.

"This has been reviewed, it is one of the biggest questions of our time," he said. "The answer that has come back over and over again is no."

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, pointed to Arkansas' high rate of incarceration, which per capita outpaces rates in many nations. The state would not see a reduction in its crime rate, she said, until lawmakers invest more in prevention, treatment and reentry programs.

Under the bill, people convicted of 18 of the most violent felonies in state code, including rape and capital murder, would have to serve the entirety of their sentences in prison. SB495 would require courts to add a period of post-release supervision in these cases if defendants are not already sentenced to the statutory maximum for their offense.

People convicted of 53 lesser violent felonies such as second-degree murder, battery in the first degree or sexual indecency with a child would have to serve 85% of their sentence before being eligible for release with supervision.

If a person who is convicted of a crime that requires them to serve 100% or 85% of their sentence violates their terms of release, they would have to serve the remainder of their previous sentence plus the entirety of the sentence they receive for the violation, said Gazaway.

Collins said even with extended sentences offenders would still be released, allowing them to commit repeat offenses.

"The truth is that almost everyone who goes to prison ... is going to get out at some point," he said. "The idea that the revolving door stops with this bill is false."

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, spoke for the bill, citing a case in which he said a man committed a quadruple homicide after being released from parole nine times.

"[SB495] helps end this dangerous game of catch and release that we play with violent repeat offenders," he said.

Those convicted of felonies not addressed in the bill could be eligible to serve 50% or 25% of their sentence depending on a seriousness grid or table established by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission and approved by the Legislative Council.

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

The bill would require the state Board of Corrections to develop rules setting guidelines for the accrual of earned release credits for work practices, job responsibilities, good behavior and involvement in rehabilitative activities.

An impact statement prepared by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission estimated the bill could result in more than $163.8 million in costs over the next 10 years associated with providing additional care to inmates.

Gazaway said parts of the bill supporting specialty courts would cost $4.5 million. While he was uncertain exactly how much all the provisions outside of parole reform in SB495 would cost, the bill's Senate sponsor, Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, has estimated this amount would be close to $10 million.

Pointing to the disparity between the costs for parole reform and specialty court portions of the bill, Flowers said "we can do better."

When asked about the costs of the bill, Gazaway asked lawmakers to consider the costs of failing to keep offenders in prison.

"What is the cost to family members ... who had loved ones murdered by people who should have been in prison?" he asked. "What is the cost to our communities?"

Collins noted that along with funding SB495, the state also will have to cover the costs of increasing prison capacity, which is covered in other legislation.

Last week, Sanders announced plans to add 3,000 new beds to Arkansas' prison system. The expansion will cost an estimated $470 million to build and $31 million in annual operating costs, the governor said during a news conference.

"If there was a payoff, if it was proven this would reduce crime, there's very little cost I wouldn't be willing to pay," Collins said. "But this bill doesn't do that. I don't think this bill, at least the truth in sentencing part, is actually going to reduce crime."

Instead of directing funds toward lengthening sentences, Collins asked legislators to back programs that would raise wages, increase graduation rates and improve other metrics he said were shown to reduce crime rates.

While Gazaway agreed the state should invest in these areas, he said it would take decades to bolster education and employment opportunities in ways that would improve crime rates.

"Arkansans deserve protections now," he said.

An amendment adopted by the House Committee on Judiciary on Wednesday would address concerns raised by legislators regarding increased penalties for theft and negligent homicide.

To allow the state Department of Corrections and courts to prepare for the changes included in the bill, Gazaway has said, offenders convicted of the most serious violent felonies would be required to serve 100% of their sentences starting Jan. 1. For people convicted of lesser offenses, the new post-release supervision system would go into effect beginning Jan. 1, 2025.

  photo  Rep. Howard Beaty, R-Crossett, gestures to speak in favor of Senate Bill 495, which would create the Protect Arkansas Act, during the House session on Thursday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Upcoming Events