Alaska Senate passes criminal justice reform bill

The Alaska Senate passed a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill Saturday aimed at reducing the state's prison population by reforming bail, sentencing and pretrial supervision, in ways that sponsors say would lead to quicker court dates and shorter prison terms for nonviolent crime.

The vote was 16-2, with Sens. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, the two opposing votes. Sens. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, and Donny Olson, D-Golovin, were absent. The bill, Senate Bill 91, now heads to the state House, where lawmakers will work on merging it with a companion version they've been working on, House Bill 205.

The bill's major elements include:

• Limits on the amount of time people would spend in jail for low-level probation violations, like a missed appointment or alcohol use.

• A change in bail laws to assess a person's risk of committing a new crime and not appearing in court, instead of requiring cash bail, which gives an advantage to defendants with more money even if they were just as unlikely to violate bail conditions.

• More ways for people to serve sentences for nonviolent crimes outside a cell, including expanded electronic ankle monitoring.

• The conversion of simple drug possession into a misdemeanor instead of a felony, though an amendment from Stoltze on Saturday exempted a drug known as GHB, more commonly known as a "date rape" drug, keeping it a felony to possess in any amount.

• A requirement of citations instead of arrests for nonviolent crimes unless the officer feels the person is a risk or danger to the public.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Saturday called the bill a "paradigm shift" that would change the way criminal justice works in the state. They also said it isn't just about cutting costs, but about reversing troubling trends — particularly the statistic that two-thirds of all inmates released from state facilities go back to jail within three years.

"Our return rate is too high in jail, the cost is getting higher, the returns are not getting better," said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who co-sponsored the legislation in a bipartisan effort with Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

SB 91 is projected to result in tens of millions in savings that would be redirected to treatment, prevention and supervision programs. Some of that savings would be associated with come from closing state facilities or not opening new ones once the inmate population declines.

The bill has drawn support from across the political spectrum, but it's also prompted criticism from some law enforcement groups and victims' rights organizations that worry the bill is too far-reaching. Five law enforcement groups and three victims' rights organizations sent a letter Thursday criticizing the bill and the state-sponsored Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which worked on it.

"While we appreciate the time and effort invested by the Legislature and the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, we strongly believe that these bills are premised on a fundamentally flawed public policy that seeks to balance the state's budget on the backs of crime victims and local governments," the letter said.

The letter didn't offer specific concerns, but called on lawmakers to delay passage of the legislation. In a phone interview Saturday, Brad Johnson, president of the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police and the Alaska Peace Officers Association, said his groups are concerned about balancing public safety with cost-cutting.

"We don't think the entire bill is bad … but there are changes that still need to be made," Johnson said, adding his group plans to focus on the mandatory citation requirements, among other provisions. He also said his group was skeptical any savings would be reinvested into preventing recidivism to the extent promised.

Many of the policy recommendations came from a report by the justice commission, which spent seven months studying the state's criminal justice system with the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is paying its Juneau lobbyist, Kent Dawson, $120,000 this year.

Among the commission's findings were that the state's prison population has grown 27 percent in the past decade, triggering the opening of the $240 million Goose Creek prison in 2012. Nearly half of prisoners are pretrial, meaning they are waiting for their cases to be resolved but can't make bail. Probation and parole costs just $7.32 a day, far less than the $142 cost of a prison bed.

The longer people sit in jail, the harder it is for them to turn around their situation once they get out, lawmakers say. Coghill and others also say the bail system unfairly discriminates against poor inmates.

"Under the current system, if you're a bad guy you can buy yourself out on bail," Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, said on the Senate floor. "And good Alaskans are staying in jail because they don't have the $500."

SB 91 went through a number of changes since it was first introduced. In response to feedback, lawmakers added exceptions to the sentencing reductions for those convicted of violent and sexual crimes, and in some cases added harsher penalties.

For example, an earlier version of the bill allowed sex offenders to earn time against their sentence by completing sex offender treatment. That provision is no longer in the legislation.

In a news conference after the vote, MacKinnon said discomfort with the bill is rooted in the amount of change it would generate.

"As things change that we're not used to, there is that fear," MacKinnon said.

She, Coghill and other lawmakers said the work isn't done, and noted the criminal justice commission will continue to monitor the effect of the legislation.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said in a phone interview Saturday the next step will be to reconcile the Senate bill with a companion version she sponsored that has been working its way through House committees.