The legislature got back to work this morning. Among the happenings:
* LIFE SENTENCES FOR YOUTH: A House committee took up HB 1197 to provide some sentences short of life without parole for offenders younger than 18. Parole would be possible in capital murder cases for example, with a potential for a sentence as short as 28 years, or 20 years if the defendant didn’t cause the death. The bill arises from court decisions striking down life without parole sentences for young people, decisions that took into account the fact that young people aren’t fully developed emotionally. The bill could affect 113 people with retroactive application. It would only make them eligible for parole, but not guarantee it. About 54 of those were convicted of capital murder. Twelve of them are serving life without parole for non-homicide offenses.
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The idea drew strong resistance, with several committee members wondering about providing help to criminals while no second chances were available to victims of their crime. These included Rep. Dwight Tosh, a former state trooper, and Rep. Rebecca Petty, whose daughter was killed 15 years ago.
Pulaski Prosecutor Larry Jegley said he “got” what the bill was about, but he said he, too, was concerned about victims. He spoke for the state’s 28 prosecutors. He said they are elected to make the hard decisions about charging youthful offenders as adults. All 28 oppose the bill, he said. He said Arkansas’s capital murder statute complied with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling by eliminating mandatory life-without-parole as the only option to capital punishment for young offenders.
He particularly opposed retroactive application of the law, which he said “dishonors” victims, families and juries, which set punishment. He said the legislature wouldn’t want to sit at the table and tell a family that had agreed to a life sentence that the defendant was about to be freed from prison.
Prosecutor Cody HIland of Conway objected to a “blanket” approach to dealing with offenders, such as by giving dozens of offenders retroactive access to parole without thinking of the individual cases.
At the end of almost two hours of discussion, the committee approved Rep. Bob Ballinger’s motion to table the bill for possible discussion of amendments.
* EXPERIMENTAL DRUGS: A “right to try” bill giving terminally ill people access to experimental drugs and devices was approved in a House Committee. The bill earlier cleared the Senate. Similar bills have been passed in other states to limited effect. State laws to override FDA rules don’t compel companies developing experimental treatments to provide them. Some risk comes with these decisions, too.
* FLUORIDE: The House is hearing testimony on a bill to give water companies local control of addition of fluoride to water. Health officials say local variance from standards would present hazard to the preventive value of fully implemented fluoridation programs. Opposition to fluoride never dies and its numbers seem to have grown this legislative session. The sponsor, Rep. Jack Ladyman, emphasized the need for “local control.” He favors local control on promoting tooth decay. He opposes local control of civil rights for gay people. People who drink the seater should get to vote on what goes in the water. The bill was approved on a voice vote, but a roll call was requested and it was approved 11-5.