LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced plans to update the Arkansas criminal justice system Monday including a $400 million-plus prison expansion and harsher punishment for violent offenders.
Sanders said the proposed Safe Stronger Arkansas legislative package would fund more prison beds, increase police training and a change laws for violent offenders.
The governor said the act would have the state build a new 3,000-bed prison. Later during questions, Sanders said the new prison would cost $470 million to build and $31 million per year to operate with a projected January 2025 timeline.
The governor said that coupled with the prison addition was an additional $20 million for staffing, recruiting and training for Department of Corrections staff. Additional programs would be mental health care for inmates, and a deferment program for fine repayment for former prisoners, she said.
Republican State Senator Bart Hester said the state is ready to pay for the prison expansion.
“We’ve been very responsible in our budgeting over the last eight years with Governor Hutchinson and we’ve got about, you know, two to $3 billion in savings right now,” Hester said.
Sanders pointed out that this would be the first investment in new prison beds in the state since 2005, when her father was governor.
Sarah Moore with the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition said as an Arkansan she doesn’t want to see more money going toward incarcerating people.
“Not putting these monies towards keeping these families together, strengthening them and de-stressing and pouring into these individuals so that they can have economic mobility in the state of Arkansas,” Moore said.
Under the proposed legislation, police training will include a new trooper school and an additional $500,000 for overtime pay for Arkansas State Troopers. Sanders said the legislation would also update the Crime Victim Bill of Rights.
Prison time for violent offenders was a portion of the proposed legislation the governor emphasized. The governor said that all violent offenders would serve 100% of their assigned prison time without parole.
Non-violent offenders would only be eligible for parole after serving 85% of their prison time under the act. If, however, an offender out on parole committed a felony, they would be returned to prison to finish the remainder of their time plus an additional penalty, she said.
For inmates being released from prison, the state Division of Workforce Services would coordinate with the Department of Corrections to find jobs for former inmates as part of the act’s terms.
Another change would be new mothers in prison would be allowed more time to bond with their babies, she said.
Attorney General Tim Griffin spoke about the need for the proposed act, declaring that Arkansas had become a “laughing stock” for its state prison system. He shared an anecdote about arrestees asking a county sheriff if they would be going to state or federal prison for their crimes.
“If it’s ‘state’ they laugh,” Griffin said.
Griffin also spoke to the Arkansas trend of housing state prisoners in county detention centers, complimenting the governor on her having the political courage to add beds to the state prison system.
The Attorney General noted that county governments that have expanded detention center capacity only to add state prisoners.
The problem under this system, Griffin said, was that, “misdemeanor justice has been removed” as he relayed a story about motorcycle riders doing stunts on busy streets.
Both Sanders and Griffin thanked Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett) and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) for their work on the proposed act.
The bill will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committe on Wednesday.