Arkansas AG Candidates Debate Federal Overreach, Sentencing

Jul 11, 2014

Claims of an overreaching federal government through laws like the Affordable Care Act brought the candidates for Arkansas Attorney General to differ over what legal stances the state should adopt in response to Washington.

Republican Leslie Rutledge, Democrat Nate Steel and Libertarian candidate Aaron Cash squared off in a debate on Friday, moderated by the Arkansas Press Association.

Rutledge, once an aide to former Governor Mike Huckabee, said there are many legal strategies that Arkansas’s chief advocate can adopt when federal law appears to conflict with states’ rights.

She said tactics may include “filing amicus briefs or suing the federal government—when necessary."

Cash, an immigration lawyer, said he still sees very little reason to challenge the feds on laws like the ACA, because it directs attention away from the state

“I just think that’s a waste. The federal government may be overreaching, but there are other more important issues that we can focus on here at home,” he said.

Steel, who currently serves as a state representative, says he has seen signs of federal overreach during his time in the Legislature. But he agreed with Cash that challenging federal policies can be distracting.

“I don’t think the solution to an overreaching federal government is an overreaching Attorney General…We send six members of Congress to Washington every year to worry about federal politics and I don’t think we need to turn the Attorney General’s office into a seventh,” Steel said.

State Sentencing Policies

The three candidates all acknowledge that the state has a major problem with prison overcrowding as a result of new, stricter parole policies.

When asked about how best to remedy the difficulties the state has faced in recent months, Steel said he sees better ways to alleviate the strain on prisons than Act 570 of 2011, which reduced sentencing guidelines for certain crimes like drug offenses and property thefts.

“This is a top priority. It has led us to paroling out people we do not need to be paroling out. I think we need to start by expanding drug courts. Drug courts are extraordinarily successful; we don’t have enough of them and they’re not in the right places. So we need to start by expanding drug courts and focusing on issues like mental health,” Steel, a former prosecutor, said.

Rutledge, agreed that alternative sentencing measures for drug offenders must be considered by the Legislature.

“We need a total overhaul of Act 570," she said. "That way we can have folks that are in prison that need to be in prison and other people who have the opportunity to change lives and go be productive citizens in society.”

Aaron Cash, the libertarian candidate for Attorney General, argued that the office has little influence since it has no lawmaking authority. Nevertheless, he said overcrowding in prison could be solved by legalizing marijuana.

"A lot of people in prison for marijuana [are] nonviolent. They shouldn’t even be in prison,” he said. “That would solve the problem. But that’s not for the AG’s office; that’s just from my personal viewpoint.”

Steel and Rutledge disagreed with Cash that marijuana should be legalized. Steel noted that many violent offenders also have drug offenses on their record, saying he believed the behaviors are sometimes inextricably linked.