Proposed SB 91 rollbacks pass Alaska House, head to an uncertain Senate

JUNEAU — Alaska Senate leaders said they're not going to rubber-stamp the crime bill approved early Tuesday morning by the state House, and instead postponed a Wednesday hearing on the legislation by two days to allow for more rigorous review.

"You have to make sure you get it right," said Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon.

The Alaska House early Tuesday passed Senate Bill 54, the rollbacks to last year's criminal justice overhaul, in a 32-8 vote.

The vote on the legislation, which would reverse many of the pieces of last year's overhaul, Senate Bill 91, came after three days of debate, with lawmakers considering a final batch of amendments late Monday that would have enlarged SB 54.

Nearly all of those final amendments failed, with one notable exception a proposal from Eagle River Republican Rep. Lora Reinbold.

That amendment, to add community service requirements for people convicted of vandalism, passed 23-17, making it one of several provisions amended to the bill that would toughen criminal penalties. Lawmakers had considered previous batches of amendments over the weekend.

After the final vote at 1 a.m. Tuesday, Gov. Bill Walker, who called lawmakers into their special session in Juneau, issued a statement saying he was looking forward to the Senate approving the House's version of the bill.


But by Tuesday afternoon, he'd backtracked, with a spokesman saying Walker had been "made aware of issues that must be resolved between the House and Senate versions of the bill."

One of the House's amendments equalized the range of penalties for first-time Class C and Class B felonies, "creating a potentially inconsistent sentencing structure," said Cori Mills, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Law.

MacKinnon, in an interview, said she's aware of that legal problem. And, she said, she also has questions about some of the other amendments approved on the House floor, where lawmakers don't get the benefit of the cost estimates and expert testimony that come when legislation is revised at the committee level.

The House's version of SB 54 was already projected to add an extra $3 million a year to the state's prison costs even before it was modified on the floor.

But then House members approved amendments toughening probation rules and reinstating tougher sentences for low-level felonies — which had been reduced by SB 91 last year.

Those provisions are likely to put more people in Alaska's prisons, costing the state even more cash. But neither the House's version of SB 54, nor the Walker administration, has specified how much more cash.

"There is sort of a black hole with some of the amendments that passed on the House floor," MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said she's postponed a Wednesday afternoon hearing on SB 54 until Friday, to give Walker's administration more time to analyze the House version of the legislation.

Most other senators weren't in their offices Tuesday; the chamber had been holding hearings in Anchorage as it waited for the House to finish its work on SB 54.

The Senate, led by a largely Republican majority, passed its own, more-limited version of SB 54 earlier this year in a 19-1 vote, and members have been waiting for the House to approve its own version.

Earlier in the special session — which is now in its third week — North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, SB 54's sponsor, suggested it was possible that the Senate could simply agree to the House's revisions in a concurrence vote.

But Coghill said Tuesday that he'll recommend against that now. If the Senate rejects the House's version of SB 54, that would send the measure to a joint House-Senate conference committee, where members from the two chambers would try to negotiate a compromise.

One of the other senators in Juneau on Tuesday, Sitka Republican Bert Stedman, said he's still reviewing the House's version of the bill. But, he added, he'll probably like it more than the Senate's version, since it goes farther in reversing last year's overhaul, which Stedman opposed.

That overhaul reduced prison sentences for most crimes and replaced them with cheaper alternatives, like parole and probation. Supporters said those alternatives are more effective at stopping convicts from committing new crimes once they're released from prison, but critics say SB 91's passage has fueled a crime spike in Anchorage.

Stedman said he's polling his district's municipal police chiefs on the latest version of SB 54. But he added that he still needs more time to review the 46-page bill itself.

"Devil's in the details," he said. "I've got to look through it."

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com