A diverse group of African American leaders in Arkansas with support from the small-government group Americans for Prosperity presented four police and criminal justice reforms to the state Republican House Caucus on July 24. Legislation has already been drafted.
The proposals would accomplish the following four reforms:
– Police chokeholds would be banned except when deadly force is justified.
– Police officers would have a duty to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force, and they would be required to report the incident immediately to their supervisors.
– State law would be equalized regarding sealing criminal records for lesser offenses. Sealing a record reduces the chance it will appear in a background check. Under current law, records for certain charges can be sealed only for ex-convicts whose charges were levied starting Jan. 1, 2014. They also can be sealed only if they were assigned to the lesser security Arkansas Community Correction, not the prison-based Department of Corrections, even for the same offense. The legislation would correct those imbalances.
– Parole eligibility would be equalized for the same drug offenses. Under Act 570 of 2011, individuals sentenced after the law are eligible for parole faster than those sentenced for the same offenses before the law.
The proposals were drafted by a group of African American leaders led by Kevin Hunt, founder of Lessons Learned, a student intervention development program.
The group is calling itself “The Conference on Policy that Advances Equality.” Its members include, among others, Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins; attorney LaTonya Laird Austin; Philander Smith College political science professor Dr. Joseph Jones; attorney Cara Boyd Connors; Little Rock NAACP President Dianne Curry; Raymond Long with the Urban League; and Rev. Ricky Lattimore, who ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives as a Republican in 2018.
Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, has drafted four bills to accomplish those ends. He said he plans to sponsor the bill associated with sealing criminal records, which he had already drafted before the group met with House Republicans July 24. Boyd sponsored a bill in 2019 that removed the $50 fee required to have one’s record sealed. He plans to look for sponsors for the other bills.
Boyd said the proposals have support among House Republicans. He said a hot check written by someone when they were 18 should not limit their opportunities when they are 45 or 50. Sealing the record does not make the crime invisible. Certain boards and commissions can see it, and private companies are adept at finding information about a person’s past. A person’s crimes may have been reported by the media, which can’t be hidden.
But, he said, “At some point, you’ve paid your debt to society, and society’s got to let you get back to some level of normal.”
The Conference on Policy that Advances Equality came about after a conversation between Hunt and Ryan Norris, state director of the Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Norris said Hunt said solutions must come from the African American community.
The two reached into their networks and gathered a diverse group of about 16 African American leaders for the first meeting, which was led by Hunt. The members were from different parts of the state, and many did not know each other. Within a few hours, they had crafted about 20 proposals that were listed in three tiers.
Higgins had instituted the no-chokehold and duty-to-intervene policy changes in the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office shortly before the group started meeting and suggested the changes to the others. He said a lieutenant told him he likes the duty-to-intervene policy because it gives the newer officers more of an ability to challenge senior officers.
The Conference on Policy that Advances Equality has since expanded. Hunt said somewhere under 40 people are involved. The group is considering other ideas, including hate crimes legislation.
Asked in an interview about other possible future legislation, Higgins said prosecutors could be required to partner with an outside attorney when they investigate police officers for criminal conduct because of the perception that prosecutors work closely with officers. Another potential change would provide resources to courts to collect and review data regarding why some inmates are assigned to the low-security Arkansas Community Correction while others are assigned to the prison-based Department of Corrections.
He said he told the group, “You also have to look at law enforcement, and what we ask of law enforcement, and what is it worth to the community.” Higgins said he suggested legislation that would provide financial support for law enforcement like the hazard pay provided doctors and nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting retirement programs for those in the profession, and assistance with health insurance costs.
For Hunt, the issue is especially personal. He went to prison when he was about 17 years old for attempted capital murder and aggravated robbery. At the time, he was illiterate and a gang member, and he did not reform or learn to read during his three years in prison. He said he had been told by ex-convicts that society would never give him a chance to succeed, so he did not even try and would lie to his grandmother about returning to school.
After she died, however, he decided to change his life. He enrolled at the Shorter College Adult Education Center, learned to read, earned his GED, and eventually earned a college and graduate degree. He worked for a time for Gov. Mike Beebe before starting Lessons Learned.
“There are a lot of people that will give you opportunity… You’ve got to be sincere, and you’ve got to market yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to brand yourself. You have to make sure somebody knows that you’re serious about reform, and that you’re a changed man or woman.”
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