Arkansas Senate OKs sentencing overhaul backed by Sanders

The Arkansas Senate approved legislation Monday ending parole eligibility for people convicted of certain violent crimes, a sentencing overhaul being pushed by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders as she seeks nearly half a billion dollars for more prison space.

The majority-Republican Senate approved the sentencing changes on a 29-5 vote, sending the bill to the House.

The legislation is part of a public safety package that Sanders, who took office in January, has called one of her top priorities in this year’s legislative session. The sentencing changes come as parts of Arkansas have seen a spike in crime. Arkansas’ capital, Little Rock, last year reported a record number of homicides.

“Right now our state is experiencing chaos and I believe this bill will bring order to that chaos,” Republican Sen. Ben Gilmore, the bill’s sponsor, told senators before the vote.

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.

People convicted of other offenses will be required to serve at least 25% or 50% of their sentences under the legislation. The bill doesn’t spell out how crimes will fall under each of those minimums. Instead, they will be determined by a table set up by the state sentencing commission and approved by the Legislative Council.

Opponents of the legislation said it’s only going to exacerbate problems for a state that already has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

“What this is saying is lock them up and throw away the key,” Democratic Sen. Clarke Tucker said before the vote. “That’s cheap politics, but it’s very expensive policy.”

Other parts of the bill call for the creation of a public portal that would provide information about a defendant’s bail, release and other information. It also includes provisions aimed at allowing inmates to have more visitations with family, including a requirement that mothers in prison who give birth be allowed 72 hours with their newborn after the child is born.

The Senate approved the bill on a party-line vote, with five Democrats voting against the measure. Another Democrat voted present on the bill, which has the same effect as voting against it.

As part of her public safety package, Sanders has also proposed setting aside $470 million for 3,000 new prison beds.

The state’s prisons are beyond 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.