The Democratic nominee for attorney general Nate Steel unveiled Thursday what will be his legislative agenda if elected to the office. Steel’s package would eliminate parole for sex offenders, increase child-support collections through prison earnings and tax refunds, and expand drug courts and alternative sentencing for juveniles among other proposals.
The state representative from southwest Arkansas said it’s critical for the attorney general to present a plan to the part-time legislature.
“It’s important that we have an attorney general that will help set criminal justice policy. There are some major needs right now. That’s what might legislative package is intending to address. The prison overcrowding problem is resulting in paroling out sex offenders and violent offenders that we do not need to be paroling out,” said Steel.
His closest opponent in the polls Republican Leslie Rutledge said she does not plan on crafting a legislative agenda but said that doesn’t mean she won’t be involved in policy.
“I will be working hand in hand with the legislature to look at their proposals to see where…we’ll have attorneys on staff to see where there may be confusion in the law, cut back on any ambiguity in the law to make sure it’s written as intended. That’s the role of the attorney general to enforce and defend. The role of the attorney general is not to stand in the place of the legislators,” said Rutledge.
Of the reforms in Steel's agenda he used the most forceful language addressing sex offenders. In an interview with Talk Business and Politics Steel emphasized more stringent sentencing for sexual crimes.
“I want Arkansas to be the worst place to live if you’re a convicted sex offender because we know that the recidivism rates are so high, they’re likely to re-offend, they’re the worst kind of criminals that we come across and protecting children should be the number one priority of an Attorney General. I hope to make sure that our state laws reflect that,” said Steel.
Rutledge criticized Steel’s record on sex offenders pointing to a 2013 law passed without opposition.
“He was the only member to vote present on Senate Bill 12 which prohibits sex offenders, level 3 and level 4 sex offenders, from being at children’s swimming areas and playgrounds and I believe at state parks,” said Rutledge.
Steel said he didn’t oppose the bill and in part voted “present” because he perceived a conflict of interest. The bill, now law, dealt with restricting some levels of sex offenders from state parks and Steel said Crater of Diamonds State Park – in his district – was uncertain about some technical language.
Rutledge and Steel also face Libertarian Aaron Cash. The attorney from Rogers, like Rutledge, doesn't like the idea of the attorney general pushing a legislative agenda.
"As AG, I think the idea isn't to mandate to the legislature what you think is best but to work with the legislators responsible for the formation of laws and provide legal advice, when necessary. What kind of experience does Steel have that gives him the credibility to dictate terms to the legislators elected to do this as their job? The answer is simple- none," said Cash.
The idea of having a legislative package is certainly not new. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who is term limited out, advocated in the 2013 session for looking at the constitutionality of Arkansas's death penalty laws and pursuing human trafficking legislation. One of the results was the legislature created a task force on human trafficking that has been meeting regularly to help inform law enforcement and possible legislation in the 2015 regular session.
Cash also criticized Steel's approach to prison overcrowding, sentencing, and drug courts.
"In one breath, Steel talks about cracking down on violent child sex predators. In the next, he talks about stepping up enforcement for non-violent prescription drug violations. This doesn't make sense. We have limited resources in Arkansas, and we should not be wasting them investigating non-violent prescription drug offenses. The focus should be on violent criminals who pose a true threat to society," said Cash.
Cash said he also wants to advocate for releasing more non-violent drug offenders. He contends such steps would make a new prison, estimated to cost $100 million, unnecessary.