JUNEAU — With less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session, the Alaska House Finance Committee has proposed a compromise crime-fighting plan that appears to satisfy Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s call for a “war on criminals.”
“This would effectively repeal and replace the negative aspects of SB 91,” John Skidmore, Alaska’s deputy attorney general, told the committee while referring to the controversial criminal justice reform bill known as Senate Bill 91.
The new legislation, known as House Bill 49, increases criminal penalties for a wide swath of crimes, adjusts the way the state handles detention before trial and modifies probation and parole. Both the governor and legislators have said that anti-crime legislation is just as necessary as the budget in order to adjourn the session on time.
Until now, the crime-fighting concept has been bogged down by disparate proposals fighting for attention. HB 49 attempts to break that slowdown by incorporating elements of four anti-crime bills proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, modifications made by the Senate and proposals from the House Judiciary Committee in 67 dense pages of legislation.
In total, it further repeals SB 91, which was signed into law in 2016. Critics have blamed SB 91, which attempted to shrink the prison population and cut correctional costs, for contributing to a spike in state crime rates despite extensive modifications since its passage.
The legislation would increase costs for the state’s criminal justice system. According to draft fiscal notes provided Saturday evening to the finance committee, the bill would cost the state about $23 million more per year.
If HB 49 were to become law, one of the biggest changes would be an increase in criminal sentences for simple drug possession. HB 49 would make a first or second drug-possession conviction a Class A misdemeanor subject to up to 365 days in prison or on electronic monitoring. SB 91 had made it a Class B misdemeanor, which under SB 91 was punishable by up to 10 days in custody.
The increase is intended to serve as a threat to goad convicted users into treatment. By completing treatment, they might receive a shorter sentence or have a sentence entirely suspended.
Alaska State Troopers Maj. Andy Greenstreet also told lawmakers that the threat of jail time will give drug users an incentive to cooperate with police and reveal drug dealers, helping prosecution.
Laura Brooks of the Department of Corrections pointed out a possible drawback: If more drug users end up in the criminal justice system, they will find a shortage of treatment options. There is already a waitlist to simply be assessed for suitability to enter treatment, Brooks said, and then there’s another waitlist for actual treatment beds both inside prison walls and outside of them.
“These waitlists continue to grow because we cannot keep up with demand,” she said.
Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, said not all treatment facilities have waitlists, and she referred to a real-time list that on Saturday showed two of 20 facilities (both in Anchorage) with open beds.
Drug crimes aren’t the only ones that would see higher penalties. The maximum possible sentence for Class A misdemeanors would increase to one year; the top sentence for a Class B misdemeanor would rise from 10 days to 30 days; and the penalties for Class A and B felonies would also increase.
Theft crimes are addressed in the bill specifically. An automatic inflation adjustment that was scheduled to raise the bar for felony theft would be eliminated under HB 49, and a new penalty has been added for possession of car theft tools.
Under SB 91, Alaskans awaiting trial received credit against their prison sentences for time spent on electronic monitoring. HB 49 states that those accused of sex crimes and other serious crimes must await trial in prison if they want to receive credit. In addition, HB 49 would increase the penalty for unlawfully removing an electronic monitoring device.
“By elevating these crimes … it encourages more use of ankle monitoring,” Skidmore said, because those being monitored will have a bigger disincentive to violate their conditions of release.
“There will be appropriate consequences if it’s abused,” he said.
Other changes to the pretrial system come on the judges’ side of the bench. A controversial data-driven risk assessment tool that guides pretrial release decisions will be made optional, Skidmore said, but will not be eliminated entirely.
“It would merely be a factor for the courts to consider,” he told lawmakers.
Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, hailed that change.
“That gives the discretion back to the judge,” he said.