The Saline Courier Weekend
Senate Judiciary Committee OKS longer sentences for violent offenders
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation that lengthens prison sentences for violent offenders and requires prison inmates to work harder to qualify for parole.
The legislation is Senate Bill 495. One goal is to provide juries in criminal trials with more accurate information about the length of time that convicted criminals are truly going to serve behind bars after their sentencing.
Criminals convicted of rape and capital murder would serve 100 percent of their sentences. The 100 percent sentence requirement also will apply to aggravated robbery, human trafficking, Internet stalking of a child and more serious categories of aggravated residential burglary.
Offenders would serve 85 percent of their sentence after conviction for a long list of violent felonies, including second degree murder, negligent homicide, manslaughter, encouraging someone to commit suicide, first degree battery, first degree sexual assault and sexual indecency with a child.
Other felonies on the list include permitting abuse of a minor, serious categories of arson, advocating overthrow of the government, treason, making a terrorist threat, arming a terrorist and exposing the public to toxic, chemical or radioactive substances.
Making offenders serve longer sentences would bring Arkansas sentencing guidelines more in line with those used by federal prisons, where people convicted of federal crimes serve almost all of their sentence.
The sponsor of SB 495 told senators on the Judiciary Committee about inmates being released after serving only a sixth of their sentence because of Arkansas laws.
In some cases, they were released before completing drug rehabilitation or other programs designed to help them transition back to the outside world.
A goal of SB 495 is to create incentives for inmates to complete rehabilitation, anger management, skills training and other courses that improve their chances of success in society. Instead of automatically earning “good time” just for being in prison, they would not begin to accumulate credits for early release until they complete rehabilitation programs.
The bill creates a task force to work on recidivism, and expands mental health treatment for inmates.
Along with SB 495, the legislature will consider appropriations to pay for an additional 3,000 prison beds and the hiring of additional security officers and prison staff. One goal is to put a stop to the “revolving door” that allows dangerous offenders to be released early due to lack of prison capacity. Those new beds will be in addition to the 400 beds recently approved by prison officials.
Another goal is to free up space in county jails, which house convicted offenders when there is no space in state prisons. Sheriffs have told legislators that conditions are becoming more dangerous for jail staff and minimum security prisoners, as county jails fill up with serious offenders.
A growing number of people charged with misdemeanors are being released because county jail space has to be reserved for dangerous felony offenders. By making space available again in county jails, supporters of SB 495 say they want to re-establish the importance of punishing misdemeanors.
Representatives of prosecuting attorneys and county sheriffs told senators that they support SB 495.