Arkansas state lawmakers passed at least 28 bills during the regular legislative session creating new criminal charges or enhancing existing punishments for offenses ranging from dealing fentanyl to causing serious injuries while driving distracted.
The penalties signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders vary from fine increases to life sentences in prison. At least nine new laws add or enhance penalties for crimes against minors, victims of human trafficking or other vulnerable groups. Several others bolster punishments for violations related to the distribution of drugs and the theft of vehicle parts.
At the outset of the session, Sanders pointed to criminal justice overhaul as one of her top three priorities. Lawmakers noted this emphasis from the Republican governor, supported by Attorney General Tim Griffin, helped set the tone for the 94th General Assembly.
"I think that there's no question that this session had a big focus on revisions to the criminal code since that was an area that the governor and the attorney had both targeted," Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Friday.
The broadest piece of criminal justice legislation passed during the session was the Protect Arkansas Act, which features an overhaul of Arkansas' parole system.
The new law, which is part of Sanders' broader Safer, Stronger Arkansas legislative package, also includes provisions intended to support child victims of crimes, prepare incarcerated people to enter the workforce and suspend court fines for incarcerated defendants for 120 days after they are released from custody.
Under the act, people convicted of 18 of the most violent felonies in state code will have to serve the entirety of their sentences in prison. People convicted of 53 other serious felonies will have to serve 85% of their sentence before being eligible for release with supervision.
Those convicted of felonies not addressed in the bill could be eligible to serve 50% or 25% of their sentence in prison depending on a seriousness grid or table established by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission and approved by the Legislative Council.
Some lawmakers who voted against the bill contend that broadly increasing prison sentences will not deter crime.
"There's a place for increasing punishments but it's going to be specific to the offense," Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Friday.
Supporters of the measure argue that keeping people convicted of crimes in prisons longer will reduce repeat offenses.
"Without question, by locking up violent offenders, specifically the repeat violent offenders, you are quite literally taking violent offenders off our streets," said Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, sponsor of the Protect Arkansas Act.
The expansive criminal justice bill also increases penalties for several existing offenses including manslaughter and certain cases of negligent homicide, theft, indecent exposure, possession of firearms by certain persons and promoting prostitution in the first degree.
A primary focus for lawmakers during the session was advancing legislation intended to strengthen punishments for people who commit crimes against children or other vulnerable groups.
"I think that's always generally the case with every legislature, but this one in particular we've just seen an increase in that and certainly need to crack down on it," said Gilmore, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Lawmakers passed bills creating criminal penalties for sexual solicitation of a minor, employers who knowingly violate child labor law, and healthcare providers who abuse elderly patients.
Act 327 raises and adds fines to certain crimes related to human trafficking that courts would have to apply if a person offered to pay, agreed to pay or paid a fee to engage in sexual activities.
Act 619, creates a misdemeanor offense for adults who for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire, enter or remain in a public changing facility, including a bathroom, that is assigned to persons of the opposite sex while knowing a minor of the opposite sex is present.
The act originally did not specify that an offender would have to enter or remain in a facility for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire. Lawmakers amended the bill after hearing from several opponents who raised concerns about how the legislation would impact transgender people.
Act 372 creates a misdemeanor offense for furnishing a harmful item to a child. The bill points to a definition in existing law for the term "harmful to minors." Among other characteristics, the item must be found by an average adult applying "contemporary community standards" to have a "predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest in sex to minors."
The act, which passed the Legislature as Senate Bill 81, also removes a defense from state law intended to protect librarians from criminal prosecution under obscenity laws. Opponents raised concerns the bill could expose librarians to criminal charges and lead to officials limiting children's access to literary classics.
As part of Sanders' broader criminal justice package, lawmakers passed the Fentanyl Enforcement and Accountability Act of 2023 which establishes several offenses intended to hold dealers of fentanyl and other dangerous drugs responsible for overdose deaths.
A charge of "aggravated death by delivery" carries among the strictest penalties in the act. A person would be guilty of this offense if they knowingly delivered fentanyl to another person who dies as a result of taking the drug. In this case, the offense would carry a sentence of 20 to 60 years or life.
A person also could be convicted of "aggravated death by delivery" if they provide fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine to a minor and the minor dies. If the offender is less than three years older than the minor who died, they would face a prison sentence of 20 to 60 years or life. Otherwise, the offender would face a life sentence.
The bill also includes a predatory marketing of fentanyl to minors charge for people who package the drug in a way to appeal to children. This offense carries a sentence of life in prison and a $1 million fine.
While Collins recognized fentanyl poses a significant problem for Arkansas, he questioned if the Fentanyl Enforcement and Accountability Act would be effective in deterring fentanyl distribution given legislators have already enacted stringent penalties for offenses related to the drug.
Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the act is needed to address the increasing severity of the state's fentanyl crisis and protect minors from exposure to the drug.
Lawmakers also advanced House Bill 1663, now Act 739, which establishes serious felony penalties for knowingly exposing another person to fentanyl.
As part of an act prohibiting the production and sale of intoxicating substances derived from industrial hemp including Delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol, lawmakers approved criminal charges related to the unregulated distribution of hemp-derived products.
Act 629 establishes misdemeanor charges for a person who gives, sells or barters a hemp-derived product to a minor and sells, buys or distributes any hemp-derived product without proper permitting.
To address mounting thefts of catalytic converters, legislators advanced House Bill 1365, now Act 264, which includes felony penalties for the "unauthorized possession of a catalytic converter" and the theft of a catalytic converter.
Collins pointed to Act 264 as a case where the Legislature responded to changes in how crimes are committed.
"We had a problem that existing law wasn't adequate to solve," he said. "I think over the last couple sessions, we've been taking steps to address that and part of that is increasing the punishments."
Between 2019 and 2022, catalytic converter thefts nationwide increased by 1,215%. Converters contain precious metals including rhodium, palladium and platinum, which have skyrocketed in value, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Lawmakers also passed House Bill 1503, which creates a felony offense for operating a chop shop. The bill, now Act 508, defines a chop shop as a place where vehicles or parts of vehicles with modified vehicle identification numbers are sold, transferred, received or purchased.
Act 508 also includes a felony penalty for dealing in stolen or forged motor vehicle parts, which are defined as parts with modified vehicle identification numbers.
Another new law, Act 762, bolsters certain penalties associated with selling, buying and possessing vehicles, boats and farm implements, such as tractors, with damaged or defaced serial numbers.
In an attempt to curb distracted driving, lawmakers passed Aston's and Abbie's Law, which creates a criminal penalty for drivers who cause serious physical injury or death while using wireless telecommunications devices.
Under the act, which was named for two victims of distracted driving accidents, a person could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. A court also could order the person to perform up to 100 hours of public work service.
Hudson, who sponsored the measure, on Friday pointed to the new law as an attempt to deter distracted driving without imposing stiff felony penalties.
While current statutes include fines for people who are pulled over for texting and other distractions, Hudson has said there are no enhancements for distracted drivers responsible for accidents resulting in serious injury or death.
In response to cases of referees facing harassment, legislators passed House Bill 1496, now Act 420, which would bolster the penalties a person could face for physically abusing an athletic official.
The act includes four penalties, the most serious of which would apply if a person causes serious physical injury to an athletic official with the purpose of causing serious physical injury.
This offense is a Class B felony, which carries a sentence of between five and 20 years.
The sponsor of the act, Rep. RJ Hawk, R-Bryant, has said it would help protect athletic officials at the Little League, high school and collegiate levels.