JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate has passed a bill that aims to close the loopholes that allowed a known offender to stab an Anchorage woman while she was in a public library last year.
Angela Harris was at Anchorage’s Loussac Library last February when a man named Corey Ahkivgak stabbed her in the back. Ahkivgak had randomly attacked two other women in Midtown Anchorage two months earlier, but he had been found incompetent to stand trial on those charges and allowed to walk free.
It’s a known problem in existing state law: The state can petition to have people like Ahkvigak involuntarily committed to mental health facilities, but no one is legally obligated to do so, and in practice it often does not happen, allowing individuals suffering from mental illness to be released from state custody even if that illness makes them dangerous to others.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat, aims to close that loophole by requiring the state to petition for such individuals to be involuntarily committed in a psychiatric institute if they have committed certain violent felony offenses and been found incompetent to stand trial.
Harris — who has been advocating for change since enduring the life-altering attack — said it is a much-needed measure that only begins to address a crisis of mental health that affects both victims and those suffering from illness in the state.
“Things should not be as hard as they are for the victim. There should not be so much responsibility put on us for justice, and this bill certainly addresses a lot of things that I should not have to be addressing, so for that, I am insanely grateful,” Harris said in an interview in the Capitol on Thursday, after traveling to Juneau for the fourth time this legislative session to advocate for action.
Claman, an attorney who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, called it a “clean, straightforward solution to closing a gap between our criminal justice system and our behavioral health system when a person is incompetent to stand trial and should be involuntarily committed to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.”
In addition to requiring involuntary commitment filings for certain offenders, the bill would extend allowable involuntary commitment periods for such offenders from the current maximum of 180 days to a new maximum of two years. It would limit the state to keeping offenders incarcerated for up to 10 days if there is no space in the Alaska Psychiatric Institute — which is reported to have long wait times and insufficient capacity. The bill also includes provisions to protect the civil rights of those who are involuntarily committed by preserving their right to petition for release.
The measure heads next to the House, but with a week to go until the end of the legislative session, it’s unclear if it has enough support to pass.
Harris, who since the attack is wheelchair bound, has spent hours meeting with lawmakers, asking them to take action to prevent similar attacks to the one she suffered. In the course of her advocacy, she said she has encountered mostly support from legislators, but that support has not been universal, and she recalled one meeting where an unnamed lawmaker told her, “We’re not doing this this session.”
Harris’ persistent advocacy appeared to be effective. On Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chair Sarah Vance, a Homer Republican, was noncommittal when asked if she would schedule the bill for a hearing before the session ended, calling it “tentative.”
By Tuesday, Vance stood up on the House floor to ask for a rule to be waived to hear the bill the following day in her committee.
Harris said it would be “disappointing” if the legislation did not pass this session. She intended to remain in Juneau through Friday to continue advocating for it.
“There’s this huge elephant of inadequacies that I’ve found through this entire process, and we’ve taken the smallest bite that focuses on prevention, victims’ rights,” she said. “Someone should have stood up for justice a long time ago.”
‘Just as much a victim’
In the Senate, the bill faced criticism from civil rights organizations and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. It passed the chamber on Monday in a 14-6 vote, with three Republicans and three Democrats opposed.
Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat, voted against the bill after saying it could have unintended consequences for people suffering from mental illness.
“This is the balance of civil liberties … versus making sure that we take people off the streets that are a danger to themselves and others,” said Sen. Mike Shower, a Wasilla Republican, who voted against the bill. “I think we all want to do the right thing here.”
Shower hinted at a January incident when troopers in January mistakenly transported a Mat-Su school principal to a hospital for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation. Lawmakers have said there could be a need for legal action to ensure such mistakes do not occur again in the future, but Claman said that’s a separate issue that his bill does not address.
Harris, too, acknowledged the need to balance victims’ rights with those experiencing mental illness.
“It’s time to focus more on the mental health aspect. Because if you look at Corey’s situation, he’s just as much of a victim as I am, for a lot longer than me,” she said.
But Claman said that the need to address Alaska’s underfunded mental health system should not stop the state from acting to address the existing loophole that could add around 60 mentally ill individuals per year to the list of those involuntarily committed in the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.
“We’ve got a duty to protect the public, and it may well be that part of that conversation means we’re going to over time need to expand API’s capacity to take people and care for them,” said Claman. “If we’re going to wait for everything to be perfect at API, we run the serious risk that we’re putting our communities at risk.”
Between 2020 and 2022, around 178 cases were dismissed by the state Department of Law because the defendant was not competent to stand trial, according to the department. Claman’s bill would cost around $460,000 per year to implement for the Department of Law alone, including for hiring a new attorney to file and track civil involuntary commitment petitions.
As of early March, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute had a waitlist of 30 defendants for restoration services, with waits ranging from 130 to 150 days, according to the Department of Family and Community Services. The state currently has the capacity to provide forensic restoration — the services required for the individuals committed under the bill — for only 10 individuals at a time.
The proposed budget for the year already includes $800,000 — requested by Gov. Mike Dunleavy — to implement jail-based and outpatient restoration programs, which could make room for additional patients at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, but the Department of Family and Community Services could require additional hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement the bill for new staff members and services.
Mark Regan, legal director of the Disability Law Center of Alaska, wrote in a letter to the Senate Health and Social Services Committee that Alaska Psychiatric Institute’s competency restoration system “is overloaded and many people have been held in jail after being found not competent to wait for a bed at API to open up.”
“If the state is going to expand this system of holding people long-term, it needs to have in mind a place where people will be held,” Regan wrote.
Rep. Andy Josephson, the Anchorage Democrat who introduced a version of the involuntary commitment bill in the House, said that financial concerns should not stop lawmakers from taking action to address what he saw as flaws in the current statute.
“Let’s spend some money. Let’s build another building. Let’s expand the building,” said Josephson, a former prosecutor. “I care about the patients, and I care about the system. And of course, I’m concerned about bottlenecks. Sure. But here’s where I get frustrated: when people say ’there’s a bottleneck, so we can’t possibly have this bill.’ That’s a problem for me.”
Harris said that even if the bill passes, it’ll be hard for her to view it as a victory.
“It’s too hard to feel right now like a win,” said Harris. “Don’t call it a win. Call it progress to a very inadequate system.”