Crime & Courts

Alaska Legislature already considering changes to controversial crime bill

The Alaska Legislature will consider rolling back parts of the state's sweeping new crime law that are attracting public and law enforcement condemnation.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday that he is drafting a bill that includes proposed amendments to last year's criminal justice reform act, known as Senate Bill 91.

Among other things, the proposed changes would restore jail time for violating bail conditions, shoplifting and first-time low-level felony convictions.

If passed, the changes could add back as-yet-untallied costs to a bill that was supposed to save an estimated $380 million — money earmarked for treatment, pretrial supervision, violence prevention programs and victim services.

The 13-member Alaska Criminal Justice Commission crafted the provisions behind SB 91, which aims to reduce prison overcrowding, costs and recidivism by rehabilitating "low risk" offenders instead of sending them to jail.

Some provisions of the law went into effect in July. Others won't roll out until January 2018.

But already, law enforcement officials are blaming SB 91 for a spike in crime even as criminal justice experts point to Alaska's ongoing heroin epidemic and budget cuts as a bigger factor.

[Alaska's sweeping new crime law under pressure for change]

Currently, the law removes mandatory active jail time for first-time Class C felonies; eliminates jail time for first and second thefts under $250; and cuts jail time for defendants who violated bail conditions.

Amid the backlash, the Criminal Justice Commission voted Friday to recommend a maximum penalty of up to 90 days in jail for first-time low-level felony convictions and up to 10 days of jail time after two convictions on low-level theft charges. The commission earlier this month made a recommendation to restore misdemeanor status to violating conditions of release, punishable by five days in jail.

None of the recommendations earned unanimous approval from the commission.

The Class C provision is the section "the public is offended about most," commissioner and Juneau police Lt. Kris Sell noted during the Friday meeting. The category includes nonviolent felonies but also more serious charges like vehicle theft or terroristic threatening.

Some officers aren't arresting people on Class C felony charges because there's no jail time at stake and that complicates bail decisions, Sell said.

"If somebody commits a C felony, they are not getting taken away and facing any immediate consequences," she said. "If there's a hole that will sink this whole reform, it's probably this one."

Meanwhile, municipalities are "seeing real problems" with a flurry of thefts from low-level offenders who "feel there's really no consequences for stealing stuff worth less than $250," Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth told the commission during Friday's meeting.

After being created in 2014, the commission agreed to forward only recommendations that were evidence-based and backed by data, chairman Gregory Razo told the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday.

But there's isn't yet enough data to judge the bill's success, so the proposed changes aren't based on research or data, Razo said.

Rather, they're based on public and law enforcement feedback and reflect factors such as confining offenders to prevent public harm, sentencing as a deterrent, and expressing community condemnation of crime.

He noted during Monday's Judiciary hearing that there wasn't enough training on carrying out SB 91 for police, prosecutors and judges. He also said there's a lag in "reinvestment" in treatment and other services that are part of the bill's long-term strategy.

At the Monday hearing, committee member Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said there's clearly a lot of concern about SB 91 that needs to be evaluated.

"But I want to make sure we're not reactionary," Wielechowski said. "I want to make sure the changes we make are evidence based."

He asked for information on the number of people impacted, successes in other states and the total cost of the proposed changes.

Sen. Kevin Meyer said he didn't think the proposed changes go far enough at first inspection.

A maximum 90-day sentence for third-degree assault or threatening with a weapon doesn't seem like much of a deterrent, Meyer said during the hearing.

"If somebody was threatening me with a gun I wouldn't want just a slap on the wrist," he said.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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