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Crime & Courts

Alaska Gov. Walker’s administration wants a new felony charge for drug dealers

JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker's administration is set to propose steeper prison terms for drug traffickers — an idea endorsed last week by the nonpartisan state commission that helps set criminal sentences.

Jahna Lindemuth (Erik Hill / ADN)

Walker's attorney general, Jahna Lindemuth, is proposing to create a new Class A felony charge for drug dealing, which would come with a 20-year maximum sentence. Dealers are currently subject solely to Class B and C felony charges at the state level, with first-time sentences for Class B felonies capped at 10 years.

Many big drug cases are handled by federal prosecutors.

But backers of the new felony charge say those prosecutors can't take all the cases. And, they argue, if federal priorities change, the proposal would allow the state to keep up its fight against some of the drivers of Alaska's epidemic of abuse of addictive opioid drugs like heroin.

State lawmakers have spent the past several months scrutinizing the state's criminal justice system amid that epidemic and a public outcry over a 2016 law, Senate Bill 91.

That legislation cut sentences for nonviolent criminals, with supporters citing research that showed those steps could save money and reduce the number of people who cycle in and out of prison.

The Walker administration's new proposal would be the latest reversal of SB 91's provisions, which lawmakers already scaled back sharply in a special session in November. SB 91 eliminated an existing Class A felony charge that applied to dealing any amount of opioids like heroin, replacing it with a system based on weights.

Lindemuth, through spokeswoman Cori Mills, declined to be interviewed. But she told members of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission at a December meeting that she expects there will be many proposals related to crime at this year's legislative session, which began Tuesday.

Mills, the spokeswoman, also confirmed that the Walker administration plans to introduce specific legislation proposing the new Class A felony for drug dealing.

Lindemuth first brought that idea to a Dec. 7 meeting of the commission, which is made up of representatives of all levels of the criminal justice system — from police to judges to public defenders.

Gregory Razo (Marc Lester / ADN)

After a review of drug dealing statutes in other states, the commission voted Friday to recommend that the Walker administration's proposal be approved by the state Legislature.

The proposal would create the new, Class A felony for dealing what Lindemuth, in a memo to commission members, described as "large amounts of drugs" that would only be found in a case of trafficking. It would apply to possession with intent to sell more than 25 grams of heroin, which the Walker administration equates to 250 doses.

People dealing at that level are in a different group from the criminals targeted by SB 91, the 2016 overhaul that reduced sentences and tried to shift convicts toward probation and treatment, said Greg Razo, the Alaska Native corporation executive who serves as the commission's chair.

"That's an economic choice. That's a business," Razo said in a phone interview, referring to the dealers targeted by the new proposal. "These are people that are selling drugs for more than just to feed their own habit."

One of the lawmakers who will likely help vet the Class A felony proposal said he has questions and concerns about it.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said at the commission's December meeting that he's worried Walker's forthcoming legislation could end up getting "Christmas treed" — a term that describes when a bill gets adorned with unwanted extras.

Claman said when he worked at a federal court in Texas, big drug busts were measured in tons, and he added that a 100-gram threshold for heroin might be more appropriate than the 25-gram one pushed by Walker's administration.

In an interview, Claman said he doesn't see why the proposal is needed if serious drug cases are generally handled by federal prosecutors.

"The first question I have is, 'What's changed? And why do we need to do something different?' " Claman said. "This has been how we've been doing it for pushing 60 years, and I'm not sure there's an urgency."

Federal prosecutors have no objections to boosting state penalties for large-scale drug dealing, said Frank Russo, criminal chief at the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Alaska. If anything, stiffer state sentences will give prosecutors more flexibility in pursuing cases, he said in a phone interview.

"There's plenty of work to go around," Russo said.

Tougher drug-related penalties could also give the state more leverage in recruiting informants, Russo added.

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