State lawmakers this week introduced a massive overhaul of Arkansas’ parole system.
The 132-page “Protect Arkansas Act” includes “truth-in-sentencing” changes that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders campaigned on, removing the possibility of parole for those convicted of the most serious crimes.
But it also extends the time that nearly all convicted felons must spend in prison if they don’t work toward their release through education and treatment programs, essentially abolishing automatic parole eligibility.
The bill is expected to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The legislation is long and can be difficult to follow because it requires looking up various other sections of the state law.
The bill is so long partly because it changes the name of the Parole Board to the “Post-Prison Transfer Board” and parole to “post-release supervision” or “community supervision.” That means that each part of existing law that mentions Parole Board or parole needed a technical change.
Here’s what you need to know about the Senate Bill 495, an act to create the Protect Arkansas Act:
1) Parole overhaul
The most significant changes would be to Arkansas’ parole system.
For a selection of the state’s most serious felonies, offenders wouldn’t be eligible for release until at least 85% of their sentences. In the most serious cases, the bill removes parole eligibility entirely.
Felonies for which offenders aren’t eligible for release until serving 100% of their prison sentences, including attempts, solicitation or conspiracy to commit the following):
Kidnapping, if a Class Y felony
Engaging children in sexually explicit conduct for use in child porn
Pandering or possessing child porn depicting sexually explicit conduct involving a child
Transporting minors for sex
Internet stalking of a child
Sexually grooming a child
Producing, directing or promoting a sexual performance by a child
Computer exploitation of a child
Causing a catastrophe
Aggravated residential burglary, if a Class Y felony
Fleeing, if a Class B felony
Possession of firearms by certain persons, if a Class B felony
Felonies for which offenders aren’t eligible for release until serving 85% of their prison sentence:
Kidnapping, if a Class B felony
Sexual indecency with a child
Exposing a person to HIV
First-degree sexual assault
Unlawful female genital mutilation of a minor
Video voyeurism and voyeurism, if Class C felonies
Patronizing a victim of human trafficking
Grooming a minor for future sex trafficking
Traveling for unlawful sex with a min0r
First-degree domestic battery
Aggravated assault on a family or household member
Permitting abuse of a minor
Exposing a child to a chemical substance or methamphetamine
Employing or consenting to the use of a child in a sexual performance
Arson, if a Class Y felony
Aggravated residential burglary, if a Class A felony
Advocating assassination or overthrow of government
Soliciting material support for terrorism
Providing material support for a terrorist act
Terrorism, making a terrorist threat, falsely communicating a terrorist threat or hindering the prosecution of terrorism
Exposing the public to toxic biological chemicals or radioactive substances
Use of a hoax substance or hoax bomb
Engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise
Delivery or manufacture of fentanyl
Trafficking a controlled substance
Driving or boating while intoxicated, sixth or subsequent offense
Promoting prostitution, if a Class B felony
Criminal use of prohibited weapons, if a Class B felony
Criminal possession or distribution of explosives or destructive devices
Possession of stolen explosives, theft of explosives with the purpose to cause harm or unlawful receipt of explosives
Possession or use of weapons by incarcerated persons
Possession or use of a machine gun during a crime
First-degree unlawful discharge of a firearm from a vehicle
Using a born-alive infant for scientific research or experimentation
Performing an abortion in violation of Arkansas’ abortion ban
For all other felonies, the inmate must serve at least 25% or 50% of the prison sentence, depending on where the offense falls in a severity grid that would be developed by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission and approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council.
Those felons — along with the group that must serve at least 85% of their time in prison — would only be eligible for release after working toward and obtaining “earned release credits.”
Details of the earned release credit program would be developed by the Division of Correction and Board of Corrections through the rule-making process.
The bill directs the program to focus on work practices, job responsibilities, good behavior and involvement in rehabilitative activities. It specifically lists, GED certificate completion, vocational programs for which certificates are awarded and substance abuse treatment.
A committee will determine how the credits will be weighted.
HOW THIS DIFFERS FROM PAROLE IN ARKANSAS NOW
Arkansas’ parole rules are a hodgepodge of laws and policies adopted over the years, and some discretion is left to the Arkansas Parole Board.
The rules could be different for two inmates convicted of the same offense, depending on the time the crime was committed.
For most felonies, inmates typically become eligible for parole after serving one third or one half of their sentence, depending on the severity of the offense. That time can be reduced further with credit for good-time served.
For example, an inmate sentenced to six years in prison could be parole eligible one year into the prison sentence with credit for good time and if the offense qualifies for parole eligibility after a third of the sentence.
However, some offenses do not include automatic parole eligibility and require the offender to serve at least 70% of their sentence. They are crimes like murder, rape, aggravated robbery, kidnapping and human trafficking. Offenders who reoffend after previous murder, rape or aggravated robbery convictions aren’t eligible for release by the Parole Board.
Judges can also influence parole eligibility. In cases where a crime involved a deadly weapon for instance, a judge can require the offender to serve at least half the sentence with credit for good time.
2) Public Bail Reporting System
The bill would require the creation of a public portal for information about defendants’ bail. The information would include:
Arrest dates and location
Date of bond release
Dates of each conviction of the defendant and corresponding case numbers
The bill would also tighten restrictions on defendants and bail bond companies when defendants fail to appear.
Currently, sureties become liable if defendants who fail to appear aren’t brought before the court within 75 days of the failure to appear. Under SB495, the period of time would be shortened to 30 days.
3) Inmate Discharge
The legislation would require prison officials to provide most inmates with additional information when they are released from custody:
The inmate’s training record
The inmate’s institutional work record
A certified birth certificate, if the inmate was born in Arkansas
A social security card
Notification if the inmates is eligible to apply for a state occupational license or certification
Current state law requires a reentry plan, proof the terms of incarceration were satisfied and information about how to reinstate voting rights.
4) Education, training and rehab assessments
The proposal also requires the Corrections Department to regularly assess the effectiveness of its education, training and rehabilitative programs for inmates.
It also requires the agency to work with the state Department of Commerce’s chief workforce officers to ensure prison programs match employment fields with demands for workers.
5) Inmates with families
Inmates who give birth would be allowed to remain with their newborn for at least 72 hours after birth unless it would pose a health or safety risk.
The bill would also require the Department of Corrections to train employees how to care for the physical and mental health of pregnant inmates, including the impacts of physical restraints and restrictive housing.
The department also must develop an educational programming for pregnant inmates related to prenatal care and hygiene, parenting skills and the impacts of drug and alcohol use during pregnancy.
Inmates with minor children should be placed within 250 miles of their permanent address when possible.
Visitations between incarcerated parents and minor children should occur at least once a week unless the visitation would pose a safety threat. It would also require any restrictions on video visitations between incarcerated parents and minor children.
The legislation also discourages inspections by male correctional officers of female inmates in states of undress.
If a male officer must inspect an undressed female inmate, he must submit a report within 72 hours justifying the search.
6) Specialty Courts
The proposal also includes new components for specialty courts, like drug and mental health courts.
It would allow the Administrative Office of the Courts to contract with an attorney to represent drug court defendants across the state. This job usually falls to public defenders who are already strained with massive caseloads.
The bill also allows AOC to contract with treatment providers for specialty court behavioral health services.
7) Therapy dogs
The bill also allows the establishment of a “statewide certified facility dog program” to help children and other vulnerable victims and witnesses as they navigate the criminal justice system.
8) Sentencing Orders
The bill proposes creating a new committee to development a standardized sentencing order.
The committee would be comprised up three appointees of the secretary of correction and one appointee each of the chair of the state Sentencing Commission, Administrative Office of the Courts, prosecutor coordinator and executive director of the Public Defender Commission.
9) Recidivism Task Force
The legislation also creates the Legislative Recidivism Reduction Task Force, which will include numerous members from the Legislature, law enforcement and other components of the criminal justice system.
The task force should issue a report by the end of the year studying and recommending improvements to the state’s criminal justice system and its outcomes.
The task force should:
Conduct a data analysis to identify the causes of Arkansas’ high recidivism rates
Examine the effectiveness of current supervision practices and responses to technical violations
Identify unnecessary barriers to reentry into society
Determine gaps in behavioral health treatment, workforce training and other services for people on supervision or reentering society after incarceration
Use data to identify how recidivism contributes to overall crime and incarceration rates
Develop data-driven recommendations for reducing recidivism
The report should also include a summary of projected saving from the group’s recommendations and a projection of the impacts to public safety.
The task force expires following its second report, due in December 2024.
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