Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday announced plans to expand the number of state prison beds and presented legislation intended to overhaul Arkansas' parole system, requiring people convicted of the most violent felonies to serve the entirety of their prison sentences.
Flanked by lawmakers and state officials during a news conference, the Republican governor said the criminal justice package aims to provide 3,000 new prison beds to ease the backlog of inmates held in county jails. The expansion will cost an estimated $470 million in construction expenses and $31 million in annual operating costs, Sanders said.
When asked how many facilities the construction would cover, Sanders said "all options have to be on the table."
Sheriffs from across Arkansas told lawmakers last year that overcrowded jails had reached a crisis point.
As of Monday, the state Department of Corrections had 1,894 male inmates and 151 female inmates in county jails. The state Division of Community Correction had 67 males and 27 females in local facilities, said Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the department, in a written statement.
Attorney General Tim Griffin said during the news conference the expansion would allow county jails to hold more people convicted of misdemeanor offenses and provide people convicted of serious felonies with access to programs only provided by state prisons.
The current capacity for the state's prison system is 13,436 beds for males and 1,216 beds for females. As of the latest count Monday, there were 15,631 inmates in state prisons, which means the system is at 106.7% of its rated capacity, Tyler said.
While the expansion is underway, Joe Profiri, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said officials expected to add a little less than 400 beds in the coming months between the Division of Correction and the Division of Community Correction.
Last month, the Arkansas Board of Corrections approved a maximum guaranteed price tag to build out the White River Correctional Center, a former juvenile detention center. The expansion is expected to add 173 beds to the Independence County facility for offenders facing 90-day parole revocations by as early as 2024, said Jerry Bradshaw, director of the Arkansas Division of Community Correction, in February.
Sanders also pointed to a 132-page bill filed after the news conference that would strike or limit parole eligibility for certain offenders.
Senate Bill 495, by Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R- Paragould, would require offenders convicted of certain violent felonies including rape and capital murder to serve 100% of their prison sentences. Offenders convicted of 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.
"Today we stop the revolving door," Sanders 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."
SB495 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.
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.
Expanding the state prison system and reforming Arkansas' parole system are intertwined, Gazaway said during the news conference.
"We have repeat violent criminals in Arkansas who are only serving a fraction of their sentence," he said. "That's largely due to capacity. The fact is we have not built out the capacity in the last 20 years that we need to hold our most violent repeat offenders who need to [be] incarcerated."
Because of a lack of bed space, Gazaway said officials have had to rely on measures such as the Emergency Powers Act, which allows the state Department of Corrections to expedite parole consideration for certain inmates to reduce overcrowding.
Following the news conference, Gilmore 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 beginning 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.
Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, said on Monday he was still studying the bill but generally opposes measures that "indiscriminately" lengthen prison sentences.
"Based on the research I've seen, the proof that significantly longer sentences reduce crimes and provide society benefits is just not there," he said.
While he does not oppose expanding prisons, Collins questioned the $470 million cost cited during the news conference, saying it was on the low end of estimates he had seen for the number of beds included in the expansion. He also raised concerns that by extending sentences the bill could exacerbate Arkansas' existing prison bed shortage.
During his initial review of the bill, Collins said there were some provisions he was in favor of such as expanding specialty courts.
Along with tightening parole eligibility, the bill would increase penalties for certain serious charges. Manslaughter would be enhanced from a Class C felony to a Class B felony. Negligent homicide, which is a Class A misdemeanor under current law, would become a Class D felony. Promoting prostitution of a child would be enhanced from a Class D felony to a Class B felony.
SB495 would rebrand the Arkansas Parole Board under the state Department of Corrections as the Post-Prison Transfer Board. It also would establish the Legislative Recidivism Reduction Task Force, a 19-member panel tasked with analyzing "the drivers of Arkansas' high recidivism rates" among other duties.
The bill also includes provisions to expand victim notification, provide incarcerated parents with more time with their children and provide mental health services.
Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, said on Monday the Senate Committee on Judiciary plans to hold a special order of business to consider SB495 on Wednesday.
During the news conference, Sanders pointed to other legislation including a "victim's bill of rights," intended to provide support and privacy for victims of crimes.
Sanders said the criminal justice package also 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.