Sanders' $470M criminal justice package includes 3,000 new beds, stiffer sentencing requirements

FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
FILE — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is shown in this Nov. 16, 2022 file photo. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday announced a legislative package that intends to expand the number of state prison beds, overhaul sentencing requirements for offenders convicted of violent crimes and recruit additional law enforcement officers.

While lawmakers had yet to file the long-expected criminal justice reform bill at the time of Sanders' news conference, the governor said the measure aims to provide 3,000 new prison beds intended to ease the backlog of state inmates held in county jails.

Construction costs for the new beds are estimated to be $470 million and yearly operational costs are expected to be $31 million, the Republican governor said.

When asked how many facilities the construction would cover, Sanders said "all options have to be on the table."

The legislation also will require offenders convicted of violent felonies including murder, rape, human trafficking and child sex abuse to serve 100% of their prison sentence. Offenders convicted of lesser violent offenses would have to serve 85% of their sentence before being eligible for release with supervision, Sanders said.

"Today we stop the revolving door," she said. "If you are a murderer or a rapist, if you are an abuser, we will put you in prison and you will stay there for a very long time."

The package would require people who commit new felonies while on release from prison to serve the remainder of their sentence in addition to a penalty, Sanders said.

Following the news conference, Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said offenders convicted of the most serious violent felonies would be required to serve 100% of their sentences starting Jan. 1, 2024. Those convicted of lesser violent offenses would have to begin serving at least 85% of their sentences in 2025.

"We're trying to give some breathing room so that we can get all the capacity dealt with so that we're not overloading the system," Gilmore said.

Attorney General Tim Griffin described Arkansas' current sentencing requirements as "the laughingstock" among offenders. When compared with federal sentencing requirements, Griffin said the state's requirements lead to offenders spending much less time in prison.

As part of the package, officials also will develop mental health programs and delay prison fine repayment to ease inmates' re-entry into society, Sanders said.

The legislation will launch a new "trooper school," offer $5 million in additional overtime pay for law enforcement officers and include $20 million to recruit and train more corrections officers. A "victim's bill of rights," intended to provide support and privacy for victims of crimes, will be included in the legislation, Sanders said.

Gilmore said he planned to file the bill later Monday afternoon. Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, said the Senate Committee on Judiciary plans to hold a special order of business to consider the bill Wednesday.

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