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Critics, defenders of SB 91 square off as Alaska House starts grueling floor debate on revisions

Rep. Charisse Millett whispers to Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux during a break from the Alaska House’s floor debate Saturday. Millett and LeDoux, both Anchorage Republicans, support reversing major elements of last year’s major criminal justice overhaul legislation, Senate Bill 91. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

JUNEAU — Alaska House members settled in Saturday for a grueling floor debate on the Legislature's latest crime bill — a fight that pits supporters of tougher sentences against defenders of last year's criminal justice overhaul, who argue that longer prison terms won't reduce crime.

Members said they expected to see dozens of amendments aimed at weakening provisions of last year's overhaul, Senate Bill 91, amid a debate that could drag on for several days. One proposal, to repeal most of SB 91, was voted down late Saturday by a vote of 27-13

"We'll get done some time in 2018," joked North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson.

If they want their preferred changes to become law, the largely Republican House critics of SB 91 will have to keep 20 other people in mind: the Alaska Senate, whose members wrote last year's overhaul.

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, SB 91's original sponsor, said Saturday that he was following the House debate from a conference in Texas, where an aide was texting him updates.

Coghill said his Republican-led Senate majority is open to revisions that increase public safety and keep costs down.

But broader changes or more aggressive attempts to reverse SB 91, he added, could force the Senate to reject the House's legislation and negotiate the differences in a conference committee — a process that could have to wait until the start of next year's regular legislative session.

"If we have to go to a conference committee, I'm not too sure what the timing would be on that, but we would struggle," Coghill said. "If we're staying on task, if we're really looking at those things — public safety, public outcry (that) victims' advocates are talking about — I think we'll do well. The talk about repeal and replace, that's a whole different ballgame."

Alaska lawmakers are finishing the second week of their special session in Juneau, in which Gov. Bill Walker tasked them to address the crime bill as well as a tax measure aimed at reducing the state's deficit.

Lawmakers have all but forgotten about the tax bill, however, and the House instead has focused on Senate Bill 54 — the current legislation to scale back some of the provisions of SB 91.

Saturday's debate began at 10:30 a.m., and by 9:30 p.m. House lawmakers were still discussing their 11th amendment.

Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton said at least 97 amendments have been drafted, based on the number of one of the amendments that legislative attorneys wrote for him. He stressed that it's unlikely all of those amendments will be offered, as some could be duplicates or withdrawn by their sponsors without being proposed.

Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton speaks with observers during a break from the House floor debate Saturday. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

The 123-page SB 91 aimed to completely transform the state's criminal justice system, by replacing costly prison terms with cheaper alternatives like probation and parole for convicts and pre-trial supervision for defendants out on bail.

Supporters like Coghill cited research that shows those alternatives to prison can be more effective in stopping criminals from committing more crimes once they're released.

By reducing the state's use of prisons, SB 91 was projected to save the state $380 million by 2024. But the Legislature's critics of the bill — led by members of the House Republican minority — have linked it to perceptions of a rise in crime, particularly in Anchorage and the Mat-Su.

That's even though most categories of crime in Alaska actually decreased sharply in the first six months after the legislation's passage.

Those differences of opinion have fueled the House's past two weeks of debate on SB 54, through the judiciary and finance committees.

But the committee discussions — where chairs can bring in expert witnesses and more easily limit members' arguments — are far less volatile than the debate on the House floor, with its full 40 members.

Most of the House's 22 majority members still support the major pieces of SB 91.

But a handful of majority members — all from Anchorage — have questioned pieces of the overhaul or now oppose it outright. And that made for some close votes on the first batch of amendments Saturday, with some of those majority members crossing caucus lines to side with the Republican minority.

"You're getting cross-pollination like you normally don't get on other major policy bills," said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham.

Critics of SB 91 started Saturday's floor debate with a string of proposals to toughen sentences and probation laws — thereby keeping more people in prison and scaling back last year's overhaul.

Most of those amendments failed, in close votes.

Late Saturday, the House defeated, by a vote of 27-13, an 86-page amendment that would have repealed most of SB 91.

But one amendment to toughen probation for low-level felonies, sponsored by Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson — one of SB 91's few Democratic critics — passed 21-19.

Four majority members from Anchorage — Josephson, Republican Gabrielle LeDoux, independent Jason Grenn and Democrat Chris Tuck — voted for the proposal, along with 17 of the minority's 18 members.

Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold, one of SB 91's most strident critics, said she has 20 amendments that aim to correct problems she's identified with the overhaul. She acknowledged that some may not pass, but said they'd still help raise "red flags" with last year's bill.

"Sometimes it's not winning on every amendment — it's the issues you raise," Reinbold said.

Supporters of SB 91 said they're trying to stay loyal to the legislation's original, research-backed principles. While it's tempting to vote for amendments that toughen sentences, research shows that those policies don't actually reduce crime, while the ideas in SB 91 do, said Fairbanks Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg.

Fairbanks Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg speaks on the House floor Saturday. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

"That's why we're in a crisis, because everybody always votes for more (prison) time," Guttenberg said. "We can pull at the heartstrings, or we can reduce crime."

Reinbold, in an interview, dismissed the research underpinning SB 91.

The legislation was shaped by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission — a state entity with members representing police, the courts, the attorney general, victims, public defenders, Alaska's prison system and the Alaska Native community.

They relied on analysis and research collected by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts. But Reinbold suggested that she didn't find that credible.

"That's peer-analyzed, outside-influenced data," she said. "That's not the data I'm looking for."

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