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Shoddy work on crime exposes the Alaska Legislature’s incompetence

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 15
  • Published November 15

Whatever your politics, you cannot be satisfied with the Alaska Legislature's performance in the special session on crime. It was incompetent.

The House responded to crime concerns with a scattershot of amendments to sentencing laws without proper research to understand their impact, passing a bill with several flaws, including a provision that attorneys for all sides say is unconstitutional and will tangle up the courts.

The Senate, knowing about those problems, passed the shoddy legislation without fixing them, even though a process to do so was easily at hand.

The governor, who set this fiasco in motion when he called the special session, has said he will sign the bad legislation, hoping it will be fixed next year —although little good can be served by having it in place between now and the regular session starting in January.

The voters get to play a role, too. We will pay for lawyers on both sides of the needless litigation inevitably to arise from this ill-made law. And we get to listen to the politicians brag they are tough on crime.

Stupidity and pandering is not new in American representative democracy. We're more accustomed to it than is at all healthy. Our citizen legislature includes a fair number of members who are clearly over their heads and who seem motivated by holding onto the best jobs they'll ever have.

But the Legislature also contains plenty of intelligent, public-spirited members, from both parties. Their attorneys and advisers are more than capable of helping them produce laws that at least make sense, whether you agree with their policy choices or not.

The story of the crime bill is important because it shows how dysfunctional relationships have led these competent legislators to produce incompetent work.

Just when we need to solve big problems, the Legislature is working as poorly as it ever has.

The SB 91 criminal justice reform set a high standard for research-based public policy in Alaska. A multiyear process produced changes in crime laws based on extensive evidence that they would reduce cost and improve public safety.

Unfortunately, the law went into effect as crime spiked and as state budget cuts reduced prosecutors, Alaska State Troopers and court capacity. Public outcry in Southcentral Alaska demanded a rollback of some of the changes.

I think the public was misled on that score, but that's not the point of this column. Let's just assume the public was right that sentences for the lowest-level, Class C felonies had been reduced too much and needed to be toughened. How did leaders handle that task?

Gov. Bill Walker had already planned to bring the Legislature back to deal with the fiscal gap that is threatening our future and holding back our economy. That's a lot more important than sentences for C felonies.

But Walker is running for re-election and the crime issue is hot right now. He added a crime bill to his special session call rather than wait till the regular session in January. As soon as he did, scant hopes to tackle the fiscal crisis disappeared.

Weigh that choice for a moment. Alaska's economy and fiscal future. Sentences for low-level offenders who commit crimes over the next eight weeks.

The House picked up the bill in the Judiciary Committee and worked through long days to examine proposals either to roll back individual provisions or to scrap all of SB 91. The committee seems to have done a thorough job. That's how it is supposed to work.

But when the bill got to the House floor, individual members brought up amendments that had not been considered in that process and voted on them on the spot.

The worst of those unvetted amendments was by Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, to increase the maximum sentence for C felonies to two years, the same as the more severe B felonies.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, chair of the Judiciary Committee, pointed out that having the same sentence for the two categories of crime made no sense, but he was unaware that it would also be unconstitutional. That information came after the amendment and the bill passed the House.

We have two chambers in our Legislature as a backstop. Senators knew of the problems in the bill and members of the two bodies were ready to hold a conference committee to resolve them so a clean law could pass.

But as the bill came up on the Senate floor, political suspicions spooked the Republican leadership. What if House members of the conference committee insisted on dealing with the fiscal gap in exchange for fixing the sentencing bill?

Senate President Pete Kelly demanded his caucus pass the flawed bill as is, under political threat in next year's elections.

Ironically, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who originally shepherded criminal justice reform through the Legislature, and showed courage and intelligence in doing so, got stampeded at the last minute into being the swing vote to significantly damage his own work.

"I smelled a rat. I could smell something going on," he told me.

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, who had been working with Coghill and with House leaders, said those concerns were paranoid. He said there was no plan for a double-cross. Even if there were, the House couldn't have forced the Senate to pass a bill it didn't want.

Begich is right.

We've seen this over and over in the last few years, as the two houses and the two parties descend into distrust and brinksmanship, waste months in Juneau, and fail to solve Alaska's problems. They behave as if Mideast peace is at stake, not the simple issues we send them to Juneau to resolve.

All legislators want what's best for Alaska. At least, most do. But the Capitol has grown egos so large and fragile that, for some of them, small issues become matters of principle worthy of goal-line stands.

And so Pete Kelly and his Senate leadership prefer to pass a broken bill than work with the House.

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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