JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy fired the first salvo in his self-described “war on criminals” Wednesday as he introduced four pieces of legislation that would toughen criminal sentencing guidelines and reduce the number of Alaskans who leave jail before trial.
The four bills introduced in the Senate fulfill the governor’s campaign promise to seek the repeal of the criminal justice reform legislation known as Senate Bill 91. That measure, which passed the Alaska Legislature in May 2016, has been repeatedly modified by lawmakers but remains the target of crime-weary Alaskans who believe it has contributed to a surge in crime.
“The No. 1 priority for this administration is public safety, and it’s really the No. 1 priority for all Alaskans,” Dunleavy said in a Wednesday press conference announcing the move.
Alaska has a $1.6 billion state deficit, and the governor’s proposal would increase that figure. The governor did not provide details.
“Will we need to increase the number of beds in jails? Probably yes. Will we need to increase jails? Maybe. We’ll see,” the governor said after being questioned about the cost. “We’re not going to spare the resources when it comes to turning this around. I’m serious about this.”
The governor’s words came hours after he said he was prepared to propose a constitutional amendment more strictly capping state spending, and some lawmakers noted the incongruity.
Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage and chairman of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, noted that with a $1.6 billion deficit, the state’s resources are not infinite.
“I don’t think there’s an unlimited amount. I think there’s real limits and we have to make tough choices,” he said.
Those tough choices were spotlighted shortly before the governor presented his proposal. David Teal, director of the nonpartisan Legislative Affairs Agency, told the Senate Finance Committee that the “competition between dividends and government services creates a huge fiscal problem for you legislators.”
The state has exhausted its readily available savings accounts, Teal said.
“I fear that many people don’t understand that deficits are now a big problem because we live in a different fiscal world. It’s a world without reserve. It’s a world in which budgets have to balance because you cannot fill them from savings anymore,” he said.
Overall, said John Skidmore, director of the Alaska Department of Law’s criminal division, about 85 percent to 90 percent of SB 91 will be reversed through the governor’s bills:
• The first bill would roll back criminal sentences to what they were before Senate Bill 91 passed. That would mean longer jail and probation terms for lesser crimes, including misdemeanors and some felonies. Simple drugs possession would become a felony again. SB 91 increased jail terms for serious felonies, including murder, and those higher terms have not been rolled back in the proposal, according to the text of the legislation and an explanation provided by the governor’s office.
• The second bill covers the way the state handles Alaskans who are accused of crimes but have not yet been convicted. Judges would decide bail and pretrial release instead of following a scientific matrix that includes prior offenses and the seriousness of the alleged crime. The responsibility for monitoring those released before trial would rest with the state’s probation officers instead of a separate pretrial enforcement unit within the Department of Corrections. The pretrial unit would be mostly folded into the probation department, and some positions would be eliminated, Skidmore said.
• The third bill toughens probation for convicted offenders. It allows additional punishment for probation violations, ends a system that could end probation early, reduces discretionary parole, and halves good-behavior credit for probationers. The bill also eliminates the concept of good-time credit for Alaskans on electronic monitoring. Skidmore said the state’s view is that Alaskans on electronic monitoring are already receiving preferential treatment by avoiding a jail cell.
• The final bill is not directly related to Senate Bill 91 but closes loopholes in the state’s sex crimes laws. It deals with the “Schneider loophole” identified in a recent case when an Anchorage man received no additional jail time for choking a woman and ejaculating on her. It criminalizes “repeatedly sending unwanted images of genitalia to another person.” Several other sex-crime loopholes also would close under the legislation. Many have also been addressed in bills introduced by legislators.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, believes the governor’s ideas have support.
“I think we have the votes in the Senate,” she said. “In the House, I don’t have a nose count over there.”
She said the governor’s proposal would have a better chance of passage if it is modified to include means to address rehabilitation for people leaving prison. Hughes supports an increase of in-prison rehabilitation programs and generally supports the governor’s program.
Senate Bill 91 was implemented to address the rising rate of incarceration in Alaska. That rising rate was driven by the number of people who return to prison on new crimes, and reversing the bill means returning to those old problems unless something takes its place, both she and Claman said.
“If you just pull away SB 91 and don’t do the rehabilitation piece, you’re going to be right back on that trajectory,” she said.