Ross proposes $10M funding boost for public safety

LITTLE ROCK โ€” Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross on Tuesday proposed boosting annual state funding for domestic violence, child abuse and parole programs by $10 million, as he unveiled a plan aimed at addressing public safety in Arkansas.

The ex-congressman detailed his proposals less than two weeks after Arkansas lawmakers approved increased funding to ease an influx of state prisoners crowding local jails. Republican rival Asa Hutchinson detailed a plan to address crime and prison overcrowding earlier this summer.

"One of our government's most fundamental responsibilities is to ensure public safety. When you have safe communities, you have prosperous communities," Ross said at a news conference at his campaign headquarters.

Both candidates' proposed funding increases are relatively modest compared to the roughly $393 million in general revenue the state is budgeted to spend this year on its prison and parole system.

Ross' proposal includes legislation aimed at protecting domestic violence victims, including the creation of a statewide database of orders of protection that police and court officials can access and a "confidential address program" that would provide survivors of sexual assault, rape, stalking or domestic violence a substitute mailing address to keep their location secret from their abusers.

Ross proposed increasing money for a state fund that helps support domestic violence shelters by levying a special court fee โ€” $150 for misdemeanors and $300 for felonies โ€” for each conviction of certain abuse and domestic violence related crimes. He also called for part of the fund to go toward law enforcement training on domestic violence. Ross also proposed increasing funding for the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division by $1.28 million a year.

Ross and Hutchinson are offering competing public safety proposals as lawmakers are expected to weigh whether to build a new state prison. Earlier this month, the House and Senate approved setting aside $6 million to open up 600 more prison beds to ease overcrowding at local jails.

Ross said he supports increasing funding by $8.5 million over four years to hire 200 more probation and parole officers, and called for wider use of alternative sentencing such as electronic monitoring. Ross stopped short of saying whether he'd support a new state prison, saying he wants to see what a task force recommends later this year.

"Any new prison needs to be tied to these reforms because Arkansas and the taxpayers of this state cannot afford to continue to build prison after prison after prison," Ross said. "This plan will ensure that doesn't happen."

Hutchinson, also a former congressman, in May unveiled a public safety plan that included $1 million in additional annual funding to hire more parole officers. Hutchinson also proposed revisiting a 2011 state law that reduced sentences for some lower-level offenses and expanded the state's probation and parole programs. He said he wants to change some of the sentencing guidelines on drug offenses and theft to give prosecutors more flexibility.

Ross also said he wanted to revisit the law to toughen sentences for some offenses.

"I am encouraged that Mike Ross has followed my lead and offered support for many of the same points in my plan," Hutchinson said in a statement released by his campaign. "The clear difference is experience and leadership. I bring to this challenge my experience in law enforcement and as a former federal prosecutor."

The two are running to succeed Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.