By John Moritz
Legislation aimed at keeping nonviolent parole and probation violators out of prison completed its quick journey through the House on Tuesday.
The House voted 86-1 for Senate Bill 136, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson is expected to sign it this week. There was little discussion about the bill in the House, whereas senators earlier held lengthy debates over it.
The bill, totaling 54 pages after four lengthy amendments, is the result of nearly two years of work by the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, which released its final report and recommendations in December. The panel, convened by Hutchinson in 2015, sought ways to reduce crowding in Arkansas’ prisons.
After being filed in mid-January, the legislation faced scrutiny from 10 stakeholder groups working with lawmakers. The House sponsor, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, told colleagues Tuesday that all the stakeholders now either supported or were neutral on the legislation.
The most vigorous debate and lengthy amendments to the bill concerned the plan to give parole and probation violators more leeway for misbehavior before sending them back to prison.
The chief sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, often referred to such violators as “knuckleheads” who need more chances to straighten out. However, some senators raised fears that the state was reverting to previous attempts to ease up on violators.
Sen. Hutchinson, nephew of the governor, rejected comparisons of his legislation to Act 570 of 2011, which allowed more parole and probation violators to stay out of prison. That law was largely blamed for the 2013 murder of a Fayetteville teenager by a parole absconder.
Still senators had suggested tougher penalties were needed to reduce crime. The only House member to vote against SB136, Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, could not be reached for comment after Tuesday’s vote.
The legislation also sets up the framework for mental health programs funded under Gov. Hutchinson’s budget. Those include up to three 16-bed “crisis stabilization centers” to provide treatment in lieu of jail. The bill would also fund police training to de-escalate situations involving mentally ill people.
The task force worked with an out-of-state research group, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, to develop its proposals.
“It feels good to see the state positioned to take some good whacks at the problem,” said Andy Barbee, a research manager with the Justice Center.
Under SB136, parolees and probationers would get as many as six strikes for violations such as failing a drug test or committing a nonviolent misdemeanor, but each strike could lead to being held in the county jail or sent to a community correction center for at least 45 days of treatment.
As part of an agreement with the county prosecutors, Tucker said, the legislation would allow prosecutors to petition a court to revoke a person’s parole if they believe the person’s behavior poses a threat to the community.