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Parole board takes first step toward new clemency rule under Protect Arkansas Act

Members of Arkansas’ Post-Prison Transfer Board convene for a special-called meeting on June 5, 2024.
Mary Hennigan
Arkansas Advocate
Members of Arkansas’ Post-Prison Transfer Board convene for a special-called meeting on June 5, 2024.

Arkansas’ Post-Prison Transfer Board on Wednesday took a step toward a new rule written to match the Protect Arkansas Act, a massive overhaul of the state’s parole system that became law this year.

The rule addresses clemency, or the process of an official — often a governor — reducing a person’s sentence or granting a pardon. The proposed rule would officially implement parts of the Protect Arkansas Act that became effective Jan. 1.

The board offered no discussion on the rule at its special-called meeting Wednesday, though Chairperson Lona McCastlain did say the goal was to quickly publish the rule to start the approval process.

Lona McCastlain, chair of the Post-Prison Transfer Board, calls for a motion to approve a proposed clemency rule on June 5, 2024. (Mary Hennigan/Arkansas Advocate)

The rule will head to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office for review, then be published for a 30-day public comment period. A legislative review committee will give the final approval of the rule before it is sent back to the parole board for adoption.

In an interview following the meeting, McCastlain estimated that the rule could take effect by August if it moved swiftly through the approval process. But if the proposed rule doesn’t meet the board’s publication goal of June 14, the timeline could be pushed back several months into the fall, McCastlain said.

“There was such a drastic change with the Protect Act that everybody’s still implementing that act right now,” she said.

What’s new?

The proposed clemency rule notes two major changes to the process, which were created in the Protect Arkansas Act.

First, the waiting period between the denial of an application and reapplication increased from four, six and eight years based on the severity of the sentence to five, seven and nine years. For example, if the governor denied clemency to a person serving a sentence that’s less than life without parole, they would have to wait five years to apply again. Someone with a capital sentence without parole would be stalled for nine years.

The second change allows officials more time to communicate with victims, attorneys and prosecutors in connection with people on death row.

A clemency application for someone with a death penalty must be submitted 60 days prior to the execution date, rather than 40.

The proposed rule also cleans up some of the existing hodgepodge of clemency policy in the Department of Corrections, which hasn’t been updated since 2015.

The Protect Arkansas Act

In March 2023, state lawmakers introduced an overhaul of the parole system using what is known as the Protect Arkansas Act.

While the act addresses services beyond parole — like the creation of a recidivism task force, a public portal for bail information, and rehabilitation assessments — changes to automatic parole eligibility for convicted felons was among the most significant changes the new law brought about.

The Protect Arkansas Act also aims to increase the time those convicted of the state’s most serious offenses spend in prison.

Sanders, in support of the act during its announcement last March said, “Some will complain that these new punishments are too tough. To those critics: I say that’s Arkansas justice. It’s tough, but it’s fair.”

While some sections of the Protect Arkansas Act became effective this year, other sections of the law were staggered to begin in 2025.

Mary is a tenacious, award-winning journalist whose coverage spans city government to housing policy. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas