Governor-backed bill to change Arkansas’ parole and criminal justice system introduced

Gov. Sanders also on Monday announced plans to construct a new, 3,000-bed prison

By: - March 27, 2023 6:40 pm

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, left, gestures during a news conference at the Arkansas Capitol. He and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, at right, discussed proposed legislation to address parole, jail overcrowding and other criminal justice issues. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday revealed legislation that proposes restructuring Arkansas’ parole system and eliminating parole eligibility for those convicted of the most violent offenses.

The new Republican governor also announced that the state would seek to build a new 3000-bed prison.

“Truth in sentencing” has been one of Sanders’ main priorities on the campaign trail and since taking office in January. 

The 132-page “Protect Arkansas Act” was filed late Monday afternoon, and Sanders at an earlier news conference said it focused on removing “violent, repeat offenders” from Arkansas streets.

Those convicted of offenses like first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping or trafficking a child must serve 100% of their prison sentences without the possibility for parole, under the legislation. 

Those convicted of some lesser crimes, like second-degree murder, sexual assault and some domestic violence offenses, would be required to serve 85% of their prison sentences before being eligible for early release. 

“Some will complain that these new punishments are too tough,” Sanders said. “To those critics: I say that’s Arkansas justice. It’s tough, but it’s fair.”

She also noted Arkansas hadn’t funded significant new prison construction since the mid-2000s. Sanders estimated that the new, 3,000-bed facility will cost $470 million to build with an annual operating budget of about $31 million.

The measures in the bill aim to be implemented by the start of 2025.

The state Board of Corrections moved forward with searching for a site for a new 1,000-bed facility last year. Then-Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves said projections showed that Arkansas would need 2,200 new prison beds over the next decade if current inmate population growth trends continued.

As of early March, there were 15,590 inmates in state prisons with another 1,909 state inmates in county jails or other backup facilities, according to state prison data.

Attorney General Tim Griffin at Monday’s news conference said that county jail overcrowding had destroyed Arkansas’ misdemeanor justice system, and the problem should’ve been resolved long ago.

“Political courage was lacking,” he said.

Violent crime in Arkansas has risen somewhat steadily since declines in the late 1990s. Increasing violence in the Natural State, though, has come as the U.S. has seen an overall decline in violent crime rate, according to the FBI’s crime statistics. 

For instance, Arkansas saw 671 violent crimes reported per 100,000 people in 2020, a sharp increase from the 580 violent incidents per 100,000 Arkansans the year prior. Meanwhile, the U.S. violent crime rate in 2020 was 398 incidents per 100,000, a slight increase from the 380 in 2019, per federal data.


Data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Violent crime includes the offenses of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.


At the same time, Arkansas has had one of the fastest growing prison populations over the last two decades. 

Asked why Arkansas should continue trying to incarcerate more people even though crime has continued to rise at the same time as the incarceration, Sanders said the key was to have targeted “truth in sentencing.”

“We may be incarcerating, but we’re immediately letting violent, repeat offenders back into the community,” she said. “The question I’d have for you is: Would you rather lock those individuals up or let them into your neighborhood? My option is to lock them up because I don’t want them in the neighborhood with my kids. I think we absolutely have to take stronger measures, again, to lock up violent, repeat offenders. Those are the people we’re looking at. Those are the targets we’re moving towards. We’re going to make sure they’re not ravaging our communities.”

Griffin agreed, saying Arkansas’ criminal justice system is built on “catch and release.” He also noted that Arkansas has a higher volume of violent crime than a lot of other places.

“We do incarcerate a lot; the problem is we’re releasing a lot too,” he said.

Arkansas State Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett)
(Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Sanders also said there will be a focus on helping inmates get mental health treatment to reduce recidivism and evidenced-based treatment options for inmates who genuinely want to change and reenter society. 

She also noted that inmates will be allowed more time with their children and that new mothers will have more time with their newborns while incarcerated.

The legislative package also includes measures to recruit and train correctional officers.

Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould)  introduced a House version of the bill, and Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett) introduced a Senate version. Both legislators said they hope to run the bills in their chamber’s respective Judiciary Committee this week.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.