Republican Tim Griffin says he will emphasize stricter guidelines and a revamped parole system to fight rising crime if elected Arkansas' attorney general, while Democratic opponent Jessie Gibson wants to cut recidivism rates to free up prison space.
Griffin, Arkansas' current lieutenant governor, and Gibson, a Little Rock attorney, will square off in the Nov. 8 general election. Early voting begins Oct. 24.
Griffin, 53, defeated Leon Jones Jr. in the May 24 Republican primary after originally announcing that he would run to succeed Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Griffin dropped out of the governor's race and filed to run for attorney general after Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders -- the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee and a former press secretary for former President Donald Trump -- announced her candidacy for the state's top elected position.
"I have been elected for going on 12 years now, and I have served by working hard and by doing what I said I was going to do, by demonstrating integrity and being a good steward of taxpayer dollars," Griffin said. "I reduced my budget and reduced my number of employees my first year in the lieutenant governor's office and haven't asked for more since. I will bring the same approach to the attorney general's office."
Griffin, of Little Rock, said his experience as lieutenant governor, a former congressman representing the 2nd District and a former U.S. attorney separates him from Gibson.
"I have experience with different parts of government as legislator and congressman and in legislative roles as president of the Senate," he said. "I have been in the military and can provide perspective on the National Guard. I also have experience with the federal and state government, and a lot of state government is dealing with the federal government."
Gibson, 48, said he believes a Democrat can win a statewide race in Arkansas, which has been dominated by Republicans for several years.
"I would say as a state we are more of a non-participating state than a Republican state," he said. "We are last in the nation in nearly every voting metric. There are upwards to 1.1 million Arkansans that just don't go to the polls. We have to give them a vision for the future and a vision for something better than what we have."
Gibson said too many elected officials want to insert their politics and beliefs into the legislative process and that is how bad policies and bad legislation are created.
"That is the difference between my opponent and I," Gibson said. "I look at the attorney general's office as one of right and wrong, not a political spin. If you are political hammer, then everything looks like a political nail. Let's avoid that as attorney general."
Gibson said if elected he would stand shoulder to shoulder with law enforcement in an effort to stop Arkansas' rise in violent crime.
"It's extremely important to always lead the charge against violent crime," he said. "That said, what Arkansas is really suffering from is our recidivism and re-offending problem."
Gibson said the state needs to get serious about ending recidivism.
"What we are doing right now is cycling people through the system and putting them back on the streets to re-offend," he said. "We have to do the tough things when it comes to education and job training [for prisoners] so when people get out they can become productive, tax-paying citizens again."
Griffin said his first priority if elected would be reforming the state's criminal justice system.
"First of all I would recognize that a lot of the crime spike that we are experiencing as a state -- not just in Little Rock, but all around the state -- is attributable to violence committed by repeat violent offenders," he said. "A significant number of which are parolees who should have never been out on parole in the first place."
Griffin also wants to create a "G.I. Bill" for law enforcement to help ensure they are adequately compensated.
"A G.I. Bill is a federal program whereby individuals who serve earn credit towards their education for them and their family. I want that for law enforcement," he said. "If you commit to a certain number of years in law enforcement, you get credit in education.
"This will help law enforcement officers and their families from a financial standpoint, and will help create the best-educated and prepared law enforcement."
Griffin said he also would support auditing prison programs for effectiveness.
"We want [felons] to get out and thrive," he said. "Ultimately those who get out of there are coming to a neighborhood near you and me, and we want them thriving and building a career."
Griffin said violent offenders are serving only a fraction of their sentence because of a lack of available prison beds, and that is driving the spike in murder, rape and other violent crimes.
"In terms of how you address this, first and foremost we have to make more space in the state prison system," he said. "For those who don't want to expand prisons for some reason, I say to them we have already expanded prisons, but the state has done it quietly without public discourse and without real debate or discussion. It's because they have filled up all our county jails."
If elected, Griffin said, he intends to work with legislators to get a new prison facility built.
"I will also be rolling things out to our legislators about putting some meat on the bones when it comes to sentencing," he said. "We have to make sure individuals are serving a higher percentage of time for violent crimes."
Gibson agrees that a new prison should be built.
"The head of the Department of Corrections and the heads of all these other agencies are asking for it because it's necessary," he said. "I do support prison expansion. However, we have to do those other things as well, like education and job training."
Gibson said building a new prison is a short-term fix.
"If you don't focus on the demand side problem or the solution by cutting down on how many people are going to the Department of Corrections, then you are dealing with the supply side solution of adding more beds," he said.
After the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year overturned the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion across the nation, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge implemented a 2019 "trigger law" that bans abortion in Arkansas, except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency.
Act 180 of 2019 was crafted to take effect when the state attorney general certified that Roe had been overturned, returning to the state the authority to prohibit abortion.
Gibson said the one thing he hears on the campaign trail no matter where he goes is disdain for the abortion ban.
"They are furious at the idea that our legislators, our leaders in this state, passed a trigger law that creates a government-mandated forced pregnancy even for victims of rape and incest," Gibson said. "People think it's simply inhumane that we would go so far as a state to have a government-mandated forced pregnancy that affects sometimes even children."
Griffin said he has always been an abortion opponent, but he also believes in exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
Griffin said he opposes the recreational marijuana amendment because he believes it will hurt job recruitment.
"How can we compete for these jobs and at the same time we have more people smoking pot," he said.
Griffin said from what he has seen, it doesn't seem like people who want to smoke marijuana are having a hard time finding it.
Gibson said as attorney general he would have to enforce the law that is on the books, but as a matter of policy he believes allowing recreational marijuana is the direction the country is headed.
"One of the biggest problems I see that we have is too many leaders who are revisionists, who look backwards to a time they claim they remember or imagined or believed that existed instead of looking to the future," he said. "I think that is the direction the country is moving, and as matter of budgeting, as a matter of developing education programs and health programs, I think it would be wise to consider the merit of this."
Gibson said legalizing marijuana also will free up law enforcement agents.
"This will allow for more focus on violent crimes rather than on non-violent, small offenses," he said. "It frees up resources and allows them to really be tough on crime and have those safe streets and schools."