LITTLE ROCK — The House and Senate gave final legislative approval Thursday to legislation intended to toughen Arkansas’ human trafficking laws and offer new protections to victims.
House Bill 1203 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, passed the Senate 35-0 after passing the House last week with no opposition. An identical Senate version, Senate Bill 242 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, passed in the House 93-0 after having passed in the Senate last week without opposition. The bills were delivered to the governor.
The legislation would expand the definition of human trafficking and make it a Class Y felony, punishable by 10 to 40 years or life in prison. Human trafficking is currently a Class A felony, punishable by six to 30 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine.
The measure also would allow victims to collect restitution; make it a felony for a person to knowingly patronize a prostitute who is a human trafficking victim; allow a person accused of prostitution to claim as a defense that the prostitution was the result of being a victim of human trafficking; and authorize the attorney general to create a task force on human trafficking.
Meeks, who was in the Senate chamber when the House bill passed, told a reporter later he was pleased.
"It’s exciting, it really is," he said. "It sends a message that Arkansas is serious about combating human trafficking. I’m proud of my colleagues in the House and Senate for putting all the work in it and getting the job done.
"Now we’ve got to take the next step," he said, "and make sure we can get help to the victims and make sure the prosecutors have the tools that they need, in addition to the law, the resources, to enable them to prosecute the people that will do this."
Also Thursday, the Senate passed SB 93 by Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, which would require a legislative study of the readiness and capabilities of public schools to prevent and respond to acts of violence and require lawmakers to recommend best practices.
The bill passed 35-0, after the Senate endorsed an amendment which clarified that the study would be done by the House and Senate education committees.
The bill now goes to the governor.
Elsewhere Thursday, the House Education Committee endorsed HB 1017 by Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, which would allow school districts to adopt curriculum standards for a course on academic study of the Bible.
The state attorney general’s office opposes the bill.
"School districts may currently offer academic studies of religions, and this bill would unnecessarily inject the state into a process that districts may engage in on their own," Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said after the hearing.
A version of the bill that Altes filed in 2011 passed in the House but died in the Senate Education Committee.
The House Judiciary Committee endorsed SB 237 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, which would establish procedures for carrying out executions in the state. The bill is a response to a state Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down the state’s lethal injection law because it gave too much discretion to the state Department of Correction.
The bill goes to the House.
The same committee also endorsed:
•SB 131 by Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, which would make the names and zip codes of holders of permits to carry concealed handguns exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act. The bill goes to the House.
• SB 92 by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for certain sex crimes committed against minors. The bill goes to the House.
• SB 150 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, which would give the state Parole Board discretion to deny parole to any sex offender. Currently, the board can deny parole only to eligible inmates convicted of certain types of sex crimes. The bill goes to the House.