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Politics

Alaska Gov. Walker signs crime reform bill into law

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: July 14, 2016
  • Published July 11, 2016

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed an extensively vetted crime reform bill into law Monday meant to reduce the state's prison population and its associated costs.

The authors of Senate Bill 91, Sens. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, say the reforms will avert millions previously spent on housing inmates and allow for reinvestment in strategies proven to keep people out of prison.

"This was an enormous achievement that will reduce recidivism, hold offenders accountable, and get the most public safety out of each dollar spent on our criminal justice system," Coghill said in a prepared statement.

According to the governor's office, the bill reinvests $99 million over six years into "crime-reduction programs," like substance abuse treatment, pretrial supervision and services aimed at helping inmates re-enter society.

The bill is projected to reduce the current prison population by 13 percent over the next decade, and save $380 million. Walker said in an opinion piece published Monday that $211 million will be in direct net savings; $169 million in savings from averted growth.

The state's prison population grew 27 percent in the last decade, nearly three times faster than the resident population. Lawmakers emphasized the unsustainable growth and the fact that about nine in 10 prisoners eventually return to their communities in their push for reforms.

Proponents of SB 91 have also stressed the need to adequately punish serious and violent offenders amid concerns from victims' rights groups.

The bill has gained a wide range of support. A fact sheet put out by the Alaska Senate lists backers ranging from entities like the Alaska Federation of Natives and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska to individual business owners and correctional officers.

During its passage, SB 91 was scrutinized through hundreds of hours of testimony and went through numerous amendments in the state's Senate and House. It passed both bodies with two-thirds majority votes.

Not everyone is pleased with the final product. Alaska's Office of Victims' Rights said in hearings throughout the vetting process that the bill doesn't do enough to protect victims of crime. Police officers voiced concern over reductions in criminal penalties and other issues.

Neither the victims' rights office nor the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association is listed among the bill's supporters.

APDEA president Gerard Asselin said the association's objections to the bill "certainly remain."

"We were never in support of the bill," Asselin said. "Our position was echoed by other law enforcement statewide as well as victim advocacy groups."

The issues raised by the association were not resolved, with one major exception, he said. Lawmakers changed language in the bill mandating officers to issue court summons for some low-level crimes rather than arrest alleged offenders.

"That language gives us the ability, when necessary, to take physical custody of someone rather than being mandated to let them go," he said.

Walker also said Monday that a portion of SB 91 needs to be fixed. Advocates for victims of sex trafficking pointed out two sections of the bill create a potential loophole affecting the state's ability to prosecute sex traffickers. The intent of sections 39 and 40 of the bill was to prevent the prosecution of prostitutes who band together for protection from being charged as sex traffickers, not deny justice to trafficking victims, the governor said.

The governor said he will ask the Legislature to amend the bill in the special session, which began Monday, to add a standalone bill repealing specific language in the sections in question.

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