Every two years, the ACLU of Arkansas gears up for a fight when legislators return to the State Capitol and Arkansans’ constitutional rights are at stake. The 2019 legislative session was no exception, as Arkansas lawmakers proposed a tsunami of bills endangering the rights of women, LGBTQ people and immigrants.
Legislation passed in Little Rock has a profound impact on the lives of people across the state, and that’s why we worked harder than ever to stop harmful bills from becoming law and advocate for policies that will protect and expand the rights of Arkansans.
Here’s a roundup of the major developments during session and how our civil liberties fared.
We won’t sugarcoat it: this was a catastrophic session for reproductive rights. Arkansas legislators passed at least eight bills restricting access to abortion and intruding on a woman’s personal medical decisions.
This included an extreme and unconstitutional 18-week abortion ban (HB 1439), new and medically unnecessary restrictions on providers of abortion care (SB 448), and an unconscionably cruel bill blocking women and girls in state custody from obtaining abortions – even if their pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or they need an abortion for their own health (HB 1856).
Lawmakers also passed bills to allow women to be interrogated for their motives for seeking an abortion (SB2), criminalize those who perform abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned (SB 149), and increase the waiting period to obtain an abortion to 72 hours (SB 278).
This avalanche of bans and restrictions has one aim: to completely outlaw abortions in Arkansas and punish women who seek them.
Arkansas women have a constitutional right to make their own personal medical decisions – without being punished, shamed or blocked from care by their government. That’s why we plan to challenge many of these laws in court and continue to defend abortion access in Arkansas.
Immigrants’ rights often come under assault in the Legislature, as some lawmakers continue to emulate Trump’s racist and xenophobic agenda.
For example, the General Assembly passed a law to punish cities that don’t cooperate with Trump’s deportation machine – legislation that Gov. Asa Hutchinson acknowledged could encourage police to target and racially profile law-abiding immigrants in our communities. This is a harmful law that will put immigrant communities at risk and undermine public safety by discouraging immigrants from reporting crime and cooperating with local police.
One rare piece of good news was the passage of legislation to allow Dreamers to receive in-state tuition at Arkansas colleges and universities. Two other bills will allow DACA recipients to become licensed nurses and osteopathic physicians.
Allowing young immigrants to pursue their dreams here in Arkansas will make our communities stronger, healthier and more prosperous.
The ACLU of Arkansas is constantly defending the rights of LGBTQ Arkansans to be themselves – free from discrimination. Sadly, even in 2019, this fundamental right to equal protection under the law is still coming under attack here in Arkansas and across the country.
This year Arkansas legislators proposed a bill that would have allowed child welfare agencies to use religion to discriminate against and turn away LGBTQ adoptive families that vulnerable children desperately need (SB352).
Another bill would have allowed anyone working in healthcare services in any capacity to refuse services to any member of the public if it violated the employee’s or the provider’s conscience (HB1289). Fortunately, thanks to a groundswell of opposition from ACLU supporters and others, these harmful bills did not become law.
Criminal Justice and Prison Reform
America’s broken criminal justice system has fueled a budget-busting mass incarceration crisis that devastates Black and brown communities and fails to improve public safety.
In this regard, Arkansas lawmakers took two positive steps forward. First, they reined in the ability of local police departments to seize people’s property unless they have been convicted of a crime (SB308). Civil asset forfeiture has been widely abused by police departments across the country, as people not involved in any criminal activity have had their savings, cars and even homes permanently confiscated by the police. This bill is a positive reform that will prevent Arkansans’ from being victimized by profit-seeking municipalities looking to pad their bottom lines.
The Arkansas General Assembly also passed a bill (HB 1523) to finally end the barbaric practice of shackling pregnant women who are incarcerated or detained. Shackling pregnant women is dangerous and inhumane, and we’re proud that state law now says this harmful practice must be ended for good.
Unfortunately, legislators chose not to pass much-needed legislation that would have limited district judges from suspending drivers’ licenses for failure to pay fines, fees or costs. Suspending someone’s drivers’ license can prevent them from being able to work, which makes it harder for them to pay the fines they owe – trapping them in a cycle of incarceration and fees.
Two years after Arkansas’ gruesome assembly line of death drew national attention, lawmakers once again resisted calls to abolish the death penalty and end this inhumane, unjust and arbitrary form of punishment.
Instead, legislators decided to further shroud its execution process in secrecy – passing a bill (SB 464) to hide the identities of the manufacturers of drugs used to execute people sentenced to death. This will further increase the likelihood of botched executions due to risky drugs and deny Arkansans’ access to public information.
The 2019 legislative session was a reminder that when Arkansans come together to make their voices heard – we can make a meaningful difference on issues that impact all of us.
But especially on issues like reproductive freedom, this session should also be a wakeup call about the extent to which our fundamental rights are under threat, and the importance of defending them.
Moving forward, we’ll be challenging some of these laws in court – and doing everything we can to defend civil rights and civil liberties in Arkansas.