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Arkansas governor signs law enforcement bills as fiscal session wraps up

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Daniel Breen
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KUAR News
Lawmakers and law enforcement officials look on as Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signs two bills Tuesday increasing police funding in the state.

Arkansas lawmakers have wrapped up the 2022 fiscal legislative session, sending to the governor a roughly $6 billion state budget for the coming year.

Members of the House and Senate approved identical versions of the budget in meetings on Tuesday. The budget bill, called the Revenue Stabilization Act, passed in both chambers by wide margins.

Senators spent much of their meeting debating an appropriation that would fund an expansion of a north Arkansas state prison. Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said more reform of the criminal justice system is needed to curb the rise in people being incarcerated.

“Our prison population right now grows at 1.5% per year. Our state’s population is growing at about .35% per year, which means that our prison population is growing at four times the rate of our state population.," Tucker said. "We cannot build our way out of this problem.”

Tucker argued the ultimate cost of the 498-bed expansion will run much higher than the $75 million needed for construction. Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, agreed that the expansion is a one-time fix, but said it’s needed to help local jails that are having to house state prison inmates to alleviate overcrowding.

“Is 498 new beds in Calico Rock going to solve this problem? No, but it’ll help. And most importantly, it’ll stop us from putting an unfunded mandate on our counties to have to take care of state prisoners, people who’ve already been convicted and should be in the Department of Corrections,” Johnson said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said the expansion is needed to reduce the roughly 2,300 state prison inmates being held at county jails waiting for bed space to become available in state prisons. Funding for the expansion must be approved by the state Legislative Council at a later date.

Hutchinson on Tuesday signed into law two bills aimed at boosting funding for law enforcement in the state; one of which includes a raise in the reimbursement rate for county jails housing state prisoners from $32 to $42 dollars per day.

Another bill provides a one-time bonus of $5,000 dollars to all city and county law enforcement officers, as well as parole and probation officers, which Hutchinson said will hopefully serve as a hiring incentive for police agencies.

“It includes new hires that will come on board by Jan. 3 [2023], and so that means it’s not only a reward for our law enforcement officers, but it is a recruiting tool for our counties and cities for attracting top law enforcement,” Hutchinson said.

Arkansas State Police troopers will receive a $2,000 one-time bonus from the legislation. Hutchinson also signed a bill raising state troopers’ starting salary from $42,357 to $54,000 per year, making Arkansas second among states in the region in terms of starting pay for state police.

The legislation, House Bill 1026, also provides funding to a grant program to help law enforcement agencies purchase new equipment.

“This is for our cities and our counties and our law enforcement officers, that we are funding $10 million for grants for body cameras, for bulletproof vests and other equipment that will build community confidence and professionalism of our law enforcement officers,” Hutchinson said.

The bills stemmed from recommendations made by a task force formed by the governor in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police in May 2020.