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Arkansas lawmakers renew calls for Corrections Board member’s resignation

Arkansas Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, speaks alongside fellow lawmakers at the Arkansas State Capitol on Thursday.
Daniel Breen
Little Rock Public Radio
Arkansas Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, speaks alongside fellow lawmakers at the Arkansas State Capitol on Thursday.

Calls for the resignation of an Arkansas Board of Corrections member are intensifying.

Alonza Jiles is accused of ignoring widespread child sexual abuse while working at The Lord’s Ranch, a now-defunct religious boarding school in north Arkansas. State officials, including Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, have called on him to resign from the board.

A large group of state lawmakers held a news conference at the Arkansas State Capitol Thursday renewing their calls for Jiles’ resignation. Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said he’s lost confidence in Jiles’ ability to serve on the Corrections Board.

“We all have an appreciation that in the United States of America, in Arkansas, you are innocent until proven guilty. That’s not what this conversation is about,” Hester said. “This conversation is about a Board of Corrections member who has lost public trust. Five lawsuits, over 50 people with significant, serious allegations, are a real distraction for the work that needs to be done.”

Hester says Jiles hasn’t returned letters or phone calls from himself and other lawmakers. Jiles has resisted calls to resign, saying the allegations against him are false and politically motivated.

Republican state Sen. Jonathan Dismang says lawmakers will likely re-examine Amendment 33 of the state constitution, which prohibits political interference with independent boards and commissions.

“There’s been a lot of personal interpretation about what [the amendment] means, and very few made by the courts. But I would say it’s the sheer fact that [Jiles] calls it an Amendment 33 issue… that is the problem. He is not supposed to be political,” Dismang said.

This comes amid an ongoing conflict between the office of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Board of Corrections; a law passed by the legislature last year shifted oversight of the Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prison system, to the governor.

The Board of Corrections, the department’s policymaking arm, has said that law, Act 185, conflicts with Amendment 33. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James ruled in the board’s favor, issuing a temporary restraining order against the law.

The conflict also comes as prisons in Arkansas face chronic overcrowding and understaffing. Lawmakers in Thursday’s news conference cited the Protect Arkansas Act, which lengthens prison sentencing guidelines and makes it more difficult to obtain parole.

The law’s lead sponsor, Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, said the allegations are too much of a distraction for Jiles to be able to serve on the board as it begins to oversee prison expansions in the state.

“I don’t think it’s politics to say that there should be accountability and that we should guarantee that the public can have trust and confidence in the people who are in these positions,” he said. “[Lawmakers] can all be removed from our position with a vote of the people, Mr. Jiles can’t. So this is a mechanism that we’re standing up on behalf of our constituents and saying we want him to resign.”

Gilmore said it’s unclear whether Gov. Sanders will initiate the process of removing Jiles, which would also require a vote by the Corrections Board. At least 52 plaintiffs have signed on to lawsuits alleging they were sexually abused while students at The Lord’s Ranch, which shut down in 2016.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.