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Alaska crime bill debate reveals values of punishment and redemption

Sometimes the Legislature works. That's what's happening in the tough, detailed debate on a bill that would transform the criminal justice system.

With partisanship taking second place to policy research, the usual scripts have been discarded. Legislators are playing roles against type, drawing instead on basic values for redemption or punishment.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, the very conservative majority leader, has ushered a revolutionary liberalization of crime laws to the edge of passage. His adversary, fighting for tougher sentences, is from the left, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage.

These are two of the Legislature's most thoughtful members and they both have powerful arguments on a law that will affect every one of us.

Coghill has served in prison ministry. First elected to the State House in 1998, he is a solid old-time Alaskan, widely respected, friendly and known for integrity. He grew up in Nenana, where his father, Jack, was elected as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, as a senator and as lieutenant governor.

Josephson is a former prosecutor. A legislator since 2012, he comes from a family of attorneys and intellectuals (who have been my close friends for many years). He is known for his sincerity. His father, Joe, worked for Alaska statehood as a congressional staffer and served in the Legislature starting in 1962.

Alaska is in good hands with these gentlemen. But they disagree passionately about the crime bill.

The bill seeks to fix the criminal justice system, with its out-of-control costs and ineffective results. After decades of punitive crime legislation by both parties, Alaska's jails are full of low-level offenders serving long sentences and with poor people who can't make bail. When convicts get out, two-thirds go back to crime.

Longer prison sentences don't deter crime. The great majority of prisoners are in jail for crimes committed when they were drunk, high or enraged. They didn't check the statute books before breaking the law to find out how much time they would serve.

But long sentences are costly for the state, which clearly cannot afford the additional prisons we would need to build to stay on this course. And long sentences destroy chances for people who make mistakes. Spending the same money — or less — on treatment could make the public safer.

A national public policy initiative by the Pew Charitable Trusts brought these issues to many states, and some that have passed reforms have seen reduced cost and reduced crime. The Legislature set up a commission to develop reforms here, which, after extensive work and many meetings, came up with this legislation. Coghill brought it forward as Senate Bill 91.

That took real courage. It's almost inevitable that some terrible crime will take place and the media will blame a shorter sentence or quicker parole — even if, on balance, we're all safer with lower crime rates.

Coghill has spent plenty of time worrying about the victims of that potential crime. He said, "I keep looking in the mirror, Charles, I keep looking in the mirror and asking that question, over and over and over again."

But Coghill has also seen the results of a system that makes mistakes into family catastrophes. For one common example, drunk driving laws that take away the ability to drive for long periods, putting people out of work.

The bill would automatically give DUI convicts electronic monitoring instead of jail and would allow those with lifelong license revocations to get their licenses back with treatment.

In Anchorage, thousands of people a year get busted for driving with a suspended license after having a DUI conviction. The minimum sentence is 20 days, with 10 days suspended, a $500 fine and 80 hours of community work service. The bill cuts the minimum to no jail time, no fine and no community work service.

Josephson says that's wrong. Sure, a lot of criminals don't know penalties before committing crimes, but people with suspended licenses do — they are told the consequences of violating the suspension. With no minimum sentence, he thinks they are more likely to drive again.

"There are going to be more dangerous drivers on the road, so more innocent people will get hurt," he said.

As a prosecutor, Josephson said most sentences he saw were reasonable. He believes many of the sentences and the rapid parole in the new bill are too soft, especially for lower-level felonies.

After going through the book-sized bill with a fine comb, Josephson came up with a series of disturbing examples of laws that just seemed too lenient, even to me, as a critic of the criminal justice system. Some of the changes may have been errors or oversights while others are part of the new philosophy of the law. He brought forward a group of amendments on the House floor.

Josephson charges that most legislators haven't read the bill. But for a non-lawyer, it is technical and difficult to understand. The summary alone runs to 34 pages. I think most legislators did understand the basic issues. But faced with his amendments without time to absorb them, they voted them all down last week.

When I reached Coghill on Sunday, he was studying Josephson's amendments. He said some probably have merit. But after years of work with prosecutors and defense attorneys, victims' rights advocates, judges and criminologists, he was hesitant to start pulling strings out of the overall quilt without being certain what would happen.

The bill passed the House and is coming back for reconsideration, then will return to the Senate. A bipartisan group of legislators supports it. Even the leadership divided. The debate is real and the outcome cannot be assumed.

It's a moment of great promise. No doubt the bill does have problems that can be fixed. But I doubt it is the worst bill Josephson has ever seen, as he claims.

Drug users will get treatment instead of jail. Low-income offenders will make bail based on their risk to the community rather than their lack of a bank account. Young people who make dumb choices won't learn to be hardened criminals in prison.

This is a chance we have to take. The cost saved will be in human potential.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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