Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders approved an overhaul of the state’s sentencing laws Tuesday that will eliminate parole eligibility for certain violent offenses.
The Republican governor signed into law legislation that will require anyone convicted of any of 18 violent offenses, including capital murder and rape, to serve 100% of their sentences. That section takes effect next year, so it doesn’t impact people sentenced before 2024.
Another part of the law that takes effect in 2025 will require offenders convicted of several other offenses to serve at least 85% of their sentences.
“No more letting violent offenders back on the street without serious prison time,” Sanders said at a bill signing ceremony at State Police headquarters.
The sentencing overhaul comes as parts of Arkansas have seen a spike in crime in the past year. Arkansas’ capital of Little Rock reported a record number of homicides last year.
Republicans in a number of states have been proposing longer prison sentences after making tough-on-crime promises a cornerstone of last year’s election. It’s not yet clear how many of those proposals will pass into law. In Georgia, for example, only a limited number of proposals for longer sentences passed. Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday sent the governor legislation that reduces the use of good behavior incentives to shorten prison stays.
Critics of the sentencing changes have cast doubt on whether they will reduce crime and said the measure could further crowd a prison system that is already beyond capacity. More than 2,000 state inmates are being held in local jails to ease the crowding. The state’s prisons are at least 106% above capacity, according to the Department of Corrections.
Opponents also have warned that eliminating or restricting parole eligibility will eliminate an incentive for prisoners.
“I think that’s going to make prison a more dangerous place,” Democratic Rep. Andrew Collins, who voted against the measure, said during debate last week.
Sanders has called for 3,000 new prison beds to ease overcrowding, and lawmakers have set aside $330 million for that.
The Corrections Department plans to open 500 beds at prisons around the state within the next month as a temporary measure, Secretary Joe Profiri said.
“I’m looking at every opportunity that I can provide some level of relief for those particular sheriffs and those county jails” that are housing state inmates, Profiri told reporters.
The new sentencing law also will require other offenders to serve at least 25% or 50% of their sentences. The law 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.
The changes are projected to cost the state more than $163 million over a 10-year period because of the increase in prison population, according to an estimate from the state sentencing commission.
Sanders on Tuesday also signed legislation that creates an “aggravated death by delivery” charge for someone who delivers fentanyl to another person who dies from taking the drug. If convicted, the person would face between 20 and 60 years or life in prison.