Crime & Courts

Alaskans voice concern about comprehensive crime reform bill at hearing

A victim rights advocate and two police officers expressed concern at a hearing last week that criminals would be protected and the public ignored by a justice reform bill moving through the Alaska Legislature.

During a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing Thursday, Taylor Winston, the director of Alaska's Office of Victims' Rights, said she believed many aspects of Senate Bill 91 are unconstitutional because they do not protect victims of crime.

Two Anchorage police officers said they had similar concerns.

The bill emerged from a set of recommendations issued by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission in December. The commission said the reforms would reduce the prison population and save $424 million over the next decade.

Those recommendations included re-evaluating pretrial practices, locking up serious and violent offenders, strengthening parole and probation to keep Alaskans from re-offending, and giving crime victims a greater priority in the law.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and the vice chairman of the commission, placed some of the recommendations in SB 91, which he introduced.

Alaska's politicians and members of the justice commission have lauded the work done so far, but they acknowledged that changes in the way justice works statewide is a long way off. The commission is continuing its data-driven work, holding weekly meetings in Anchorage.

Winston touched on a number of issues the Office of Victims' Rights uncovered. She said reductions to bail and sentencing laws, practices governing the time served before inmates are eligible for parole and more lenient criminal penalties for certain crimes may prolong victims' suffering.

For example, she said the bill -- and the justice system in general -- doesn't fully consider the victims of property crimes. In those cases, victims are often treated like "the forgotten stepchild," Winston said. The reforms call for expanding the use of citations in place of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses, which include many property crimes.

She also noted the changes for some misdemeanor drug crimes, which would be reduced to citations.

Anchorage Police Department officer Charles Baker also testified about property crimes and drug offenses. He said he was concerned about a section of the bill that increases the threshold for drug arrests.

Baker argued that if someone were selling drugs near a school, he couldn't arrest that person unless they possessed over 2 1/2 grams of drugs.

"All I'm allowed to do (under SB 91) is give them a summons, a piece of paper," the officer said. "Not take them to jail."

"We need to get (the dealers) away from the victims. That's the best thing," he said. "I can possibly arrest them for trespass after the second or third citation. But a guy could accumulate 100 pieces of paper. We shouldn't be making more victims. We should be tough on crime."

Anchorage officer Jeremy Conkling, vice president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association, said later in the hearing that those changes and others take the teeth out of police tools used to combat crime.

Conkling argued that the more that officers are restricted, the more emboldened criminals are going to be. Current penalties don't offer enough deterrence, he said, adding that weaker laws would exacerbate the problem.

Coghill said the bill before the Legislature likely will change in dramatic ways before it's passed. Despite the opposition of the officials testifying, the goals of law enforcement, state agencies and lawmakers line up, he said.

"The methods about how we go about it may differ, but the intent to protect the public and keep offenders accountable is important," Coghill said.

Lawmakers could address some of the concerns later, the senator said.

State Affairs Committee Chairman Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said testimony made it sound like the constitutionality of the reforms weren't fleshed out. He called on John Skidmore, head of the Department of Law's Criminal Division, to ask if that department found constitutional issues in its review.

Skidmore said the law department did not see any, but after hearing Winston's testimony, he would want to work with Office of Victims' Rights to see if there were.

Another hearing on the bill is set for Feb. 25.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect an error that the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association had, in written testimony, opposed the reform bill. It did not.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.