LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday called for setting aside $470 million for new prison beds and imposing sentencing changes to keep violent offenders incarcerated longer as part of a public safety package lawmakers expect to take up starting this week.
The Republican governor, who has called the proposal one of her priorities for the legislative session that began in January, said the package will also include new mental health programs, $20 million to recruit new corrections officers and new protections for crime victims.
“We will protect the people of Arkansas,” Sanders said at a news conference at the state Capitol. “If we work together and make sure this legislation passes, we will do exactly what each of us who have run for office have promised to do, and that is to build safer, stronger communities across the state.”
Sanders said the one-time funding will pay for 3,000 new prison beds, and will also require $31 million in annual operating costs.
Sanders is pushing for the new prison space as the state’s correction system is above capacity, with more than 2,000 inmates being housed in local jails. The state’s prisons are at least 106% above capacity, according to the Department of Correction.
Sponsors of the proposed sentencing changes said they planned to present the legislation to a Senate panel on Wednesday, with lawmakers trying to wrap up this year’s session by early next month.
The legislation calls for anyone sentenced beginning in 2024 for 18 violent offenses such as capital murder, first-degree murder and rape to serve 100% of their sentence. The bill would also require anyone sentenced for a list of other offenses beginning in 2025 that include second-degree murder and manslaughter to serve at least 85% of their sentence. The changes won’t apply to people who had already been sentenced before the law takes effect.
“We’re trying to give some breathing room so we can get all of the capacity dealt with, so we’re not overloading the system right out of the gate,” Republican Sen. Ben Gilmore told reporters.
The top Democrat in the Senate said he was worried about the cost of the state building more prison space considering the money already set aside for a new education law and plans backed by Sanders and Republicans for more income tax cuts.
“At some point we’re going to have to take real honest stock of where we are financially and what we can afford to do,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding said.