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Ruling favors Board of Corrections, blocks Gov. Sanders’ move to add prison beds

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Recent legislation used by Gov. Sarah Sanders in her attempt to take control of prisons from the Arkansas Board of Corrections (BOC) has been blocked in a ruling handed down Friday (Jan. 19) by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James.

Sanders and Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin say that Acts 185 and 659, passed in the 2023 Legislative Session, give the governor direct authority over leadership at the Department of Corrections. The BOC on Dec. 14 filed lawsuits in Pulaski County Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of sections of Acts 185 and 659. The BOC claims that Amendment 33, ratified in 1942, does not allow a governor to take direct control of the state’s prison system.

Judge James on Dec. 2 granted a temporary restraining order preventing Sanders and Griffin from exercising authority under Acts 185 and 659. A hearing on the lawsuit was held Jan. 4.

Problems between the BOC and Sanders and Griffin became public on Nov. 17 when Sanders and Griffin held a press conference during which the governor blasted the BOC for rejecting most of a request to provide more than 600 additional beds in the prison system. The BOC is the governing body of the state’s prison system. BOC members at the time made it clear that the prison system lacked the staff to responsibly add more beds.

The BOC on Jan. 10 fired Corrections Secretary Joe Profiri, who was appointed by Sanders and is a member of her cabinet, for acting against the decisions made by the BOC.

Sanders has rejected public requests from BOC Chair Benny Magness and other BOC members to meet and work on a solution to the state’s prison overcrowding and funding issues.

In her ruling, James said the Plaintiffs “demonstrated a liklihood of success on the merits” in their claims that parts or all of Acts 185 and 659 are unconstitutional.

“The balance of equities weighs heavily in favor of enjoining the Challenged Legislation so that the Board can regain and retain control over the Department for which it has general superintending responsibility, as the potential harm to inmates, staff, and the community at large far outweighs any interest in the continued enforcement of allegedly unconstitutional legislation like Acts 185 and Sections 79 and 89 of Act 659,” James wrote.

Griffin said the ruling was not a surprise.

“The judge’s ruling is consistent with what she said in open court previously. I am disappointed in the court’s ruling and look forward to our appeal,” he said.

Link here for a PDF of Judge James’ ruling.

This story comes from the staff of Talk Business & Politics, a content partner with KUAR News. You can hear the weekly program on Mondays at 6:06 p.m.