LITTLE ROCK — A House committee on Thursday advanced a component of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to reduce the prison population in Arkansas and a bill to regulate contracts between the attorney general’s office and private attorneys.

LITTLE ROCK — A House committee on Thursday advanced a component of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to reduce the prison population in Arkansas and a bill to regulate contracts between the attorney general’s office and private attorneys.


In a voice vote with no "no" votes heard, the House Judiciary Committee endorsed Senate Bill 472 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, titled the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2015.


Among other things, the bill would require a person on probation or parole to be referred to a mental-health or substance-abuse treatment provider, or both; create a process for establishing new drug courts and other alternative sentencing courts; and create a process for the Arkansas Department of Correction to contract with other states, private contractors and the federal government to arrange housing for some inmates.


The bill also calls for the formation of a task force responsible for analyzing the success of the reform efforts and a legislative task force responsible for ensuring that people in the criminal justice system who need behavioral health treatment have access to treatment.


"One of the principal intents of this bill is to get a handle on our current prison overcrowding situation," said Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, who presented the bill to the committee. "The governor spoke on a number of issues and has already put some things into motion, and this bill provides some substantive ways in which we attempt to address those issues."


Jeff Rosenzweig of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers objected to the classification of residential burglary as a violent offense, saying that doing so would limit courts’ ability to deal with incidents that are relatively minor but would still fit the definition.


"The problem with classifying it as a violent offense is that for a second offense a person will have to do his or her time day for day, which will clog up the system. That is precisely what you don’t want to do," Rosenzweig said.


Little Rock attorney Omavi Shukur objected to a section of the bill that would allow warrantless searches of probationers and parolees, their homes, and their cars, at any time of the day or night, with or without cause.


"This is inexcusable. You are supposed to protect your constituents," said Shukur. "People on probation and parole are still your constituents."


Shepherd responded, "As I look at this, I give the benefit of the doubt to the public. As far as probationers and parolees are concerned, if they don’t like it they can stay locked up."


SB 472 passed previously in the Senate and heads next to the House floor.


Also endorsed by the committee was SB 204 by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, which would establish a fee schedule for the state attorney general’s office for contracting private attorneys to handle complex cases.


The bill also would require the details of those contracts to be posted on the state’s transparency website.


Contingency fees would be capped at 25 percent of the first $10 million recovered in damages, with fees to drop by 5 percent for each additional $5 million awarded to the state, bottoming out at 5 percent of all damages awarded in excess of $25 million. Contingency fee amounts would be capped at $50 million.


Former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum told the panel that Florida passed a similar law to stop huge fees from going to private attorneys who had contracts with the state.


"Our former governor was quite upset with the hundreds of millions of dollars in the tobacco cases that went to the plaintiff’s trial bar in matters where they had contracted with very little effort that went on," he said.


Under the bill contingency fees would be based on actual damages only; punitive damage awards and civil fines would not be factored in. Paul Boyd, past president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, objected to that provision of the bill, citing the cost of taking on large, complex cases.


"When you’re going up against a billion-dollar company you are going to spend an incredible amount of money," he said.


The bill cleared the committee in a voice vote that was not unanimous. It goes to the House.