LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A bill that recently passed in the legislature’s final days at the Arkansas State Capitol is now waiting to be signed into law, and it is said to revamp our criminal justice system in Arkansas from the inside out.
SB495, Protect Arkansas Act, passed through the legislature late last week and is now waiting for Governor Sanders to sign it into law.
Sanders announced the legislation in March, saying said it would be a game-changer for criminal justice in Arkansas.
The main component of the bill is to build a new state prison that will create 3,000 beds. Sanders said the new facility will cost approximately $470 million.
The $470 million for the new facility will come from the state’s surplus funds, then there will be an annual $31 million cost that will have to be built on.
“A 3,000-bed facility will be very beneficial,” Saline County Sheriff Rodney Wright said.
Sheriff Wright is one of the several sheriffs who stood behind the governor in support when she announced the bill. He said the Arkansas Sheriffs Association was included in the process of crafting this legislation.
According to Sheriff Wright, there are approximately 2,100 convicted felons backed up in jails across the state, until spot opens in one of our prisons.
In Saline County, there are currently more than 50 to be transferred to prison.
Sheriff Wright said freeing up space in jails means they will be able to arrest more people for misdemeanors.
Wright added that jails everywhere are not able to arrest the people for misdemeanors that they should be arresting because jails are so overcrowded. As people continue getting a slip on the wrist for offenses that should put them behind bars, he said they progress into committing even more serious crimes.
“If you do not address these misdemeanor crimes, you know and I know that they turn into felony crimes,” he said.
Moving convicted felons out of jail into prisons also is in their own best interest, according to Sheriff Wright. It allows them to get the help they need through programs, classes and treatments that are not available in jails.
“We are a short-term facility and, again, the classes that all these people need… this is not available,” he said.
Additionally, the bill will require prisoners to serve a longer portion of their sentence and not be released on parole too soon. Felons convicted of the most serious crimes will be required to serve 85-100% of their sentence.
On the House floor Thursday, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) said no one will be released after serving less than 1/6 of their sentence. Also, those eligible for release, will have to earn it through education programs, workforce training, behavior programs and exhibiting good behavior.
Despite the majority of support the bill received in the legislature, several Democrats spoke against it.
Rep. Andrew Collins (D) Little Rock voiced his opposition to it on the House floor Thursday before members took a vote.
He said he does not believe the bill will effectively reduce crime. He added that the idea to earn release through the incentives is pointless when more prisoners will be now serving much longer time, or 100% of their time.
“Then what is your motivation to behave well behind bars?” Collins asked.
Collins also said whether prisoners are affected later in their sentence or not, those released can still re-offend whenever they get out.
Additionally, he fears this will create more dangerous prisons.
“People become more habituated to the prison environment than they do the outside world,” Collins said.
Members of the public testified against the bill in committee meetings as it was presented the last few weeks.
Sarah Moore, Executive Director of Arkansas Justice Reform, spoke against the bill in a committee meeting, voicing concerns and frustrations that the bill did not seek more public input.
Moore said her stance behind the bill, now that it has passed through the legislature, aligns with Rep. Collins.
Moore noted that the feedback from the community never altered the bill and said it was behind closed doors for six months before it was announced. She said longer sentences do not decrease crime in any meaningful way.
Sheriff Wright said until he sees another laid-out, reformative approach to the crime issue in Arkansas that offers as many reasonable solutions as this bill does, he believes this is the best bet for Arkansas right now.
“I think this is the first step that the needle is moving,” he said.