The Purpose of Committee
There are ten standing committees in the Arkansas House of Representatives. Many of these committees are familiar to you, and by the committee’s name are self-explanatory in purpose, such as Education, Transportation and Public Health. Each committee accomplishes good work for the people of Arkansas and often touches the lives of Arkansans. I would offer to you that the House Judiciary impacts every Arkansan each and every day.
If you have ever received a speeding ticket, been the victim of a crime, committed a crime, owned a gun, been in an abusive relationship, appeared in court or had a will drafted, the Judiciary Committee has had a direct impact on your life.
The Judiciary Committee reviews matters pertaining to state and local courts, employees of the courts, civil and criminal procedures, estates and trust matters, business law, and civil and criminal law.
Often, controversial bills come before this committee, garner the headlines and grab the media attention, as has Senate Bill 24, commonly known as Stand Your Ground. On that bill alone, the committee heard nearly five hours of testimony from citizens throughout our state who came to express their views on the bill. But that is just one of the dozens of bills this committee will consider this session. Of the more than 800 bills filed so far this session, over 60 have been referred to the House Judiciary Committee and by the end of session, the committee will hear well over 100 bills.
We meet twice a week during the session. In the interim, we meet once a month to study issues we need to address in the next session.
Of the twenty members of the House Judiciary Committee, seven of us are attorneys. If you know anything about attorneys, you can imagine the number of questions asked. The committee also includes small business owners, farmers, a retired law enforcement officer, and teachers, just to name a few. There are seven women, five African Americans and we represent all four corners of the state. We are a diverse group, and it is important for a committee such as the House Judiciary to be diverse, to represent various segments of our state, and to have robust discussions on the impact proposed legislation will have on our citizens. Together, we are able to ask questions about broader implications. Often, those questions lead to amendments that make a good bill a better one.
Every session, there are a number of bills introduced which deal with criminal laws and which have a direct impact on sentencing. The committee never takes these proposals lightly. Enhancing sentences on crimes that hurt Arkansans are often popular, but experience has taught that long-lasting repercussions do not always serve society well. With over 16,000 people in prison or jail, Arkansas has the fourth highest state imprisonment rate in the country. Only Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma have a greater percentage of their population incarcerated. Texas, a state known for being tough on crime, comes in sixth on that list. The Judiciary Committee receives information regularly as to our prison population, the parole population, the number of repeat offenders, and the cost to the state. It is important for the committee to ask, with every bill before us, could this have unintended consequences, could it disproportionally impact minorities, would it really make our streets safer, or does it make us feel better? Sometimes those questions are not welcomed ones or politically popular, but if we do not ask them now, Arkansans answer for it later.
Evaluating legislation impacting sentencing is one way we address this issue. The other is by attacking the prison pipeline. In 2019, the House Judiciary advanced what would later become Act 189. This legislation transformed the juvenile justice system by utilizing the validated risk assessment tool, creating plans for diversion options to maximize benefits for juvenile offenders, and then developing a plan for reinvestment of funds into community-based services. Simply put, we are on a path to getting children the help they really need instead of sending them to juvenile detention. Evidence has shown when programs like this are in place, children are less likely to commit crimes as an adult. In this session, the House Judiciary advanced an expansion of the specialty court system, now Act 58, which is designed to give certain offenders an opportunity to avoid prison time by addressing addiction, offering life skills and opportunities for employment.
Our committee also spends a great deal of time addressing laws regarding sex offenders. There are over 11,800 registered sex offenders in Arkansas. They live in every county of the state. Bills are introduced each session regarding where sex offenders can and cannot be allowed. It is the duty of our committee to scrutinize these bills to protect our citizens, but at the same time to weigh the unintended consequences of forcing an individual into homelessness or unemployment. None of these questions have easy answers, but I am proud to say that the members of House Judiciary are careful and thoughtful in their deliberations.
There are many pressing issues that lie ahead in the 93rd General Assembly. I am confident that our committee will meet the challenges with the same determination, grit and commitment to do our very best for the citizens of Arkansas, no matter their circumstances.
I am honored that House Speaker Matthew Shepherd appointed me to chair this committee for a second term. I am the first woman to chair the House Judiciary Committee, and I am confident I will not be the last.
I want to encourage Arkansans, if they have not already, to watch how our committee process works.
All committee meetings are live-streamed and archived at www.arkansashouse.org.
Thank you for the opportunity to be your representative in the 93rd General Assembly for the State of Arkansas.