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Landmark criminal justice bill heads to Gov. Walker's desk

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published May 13, 2016

A landmark criminal justice reform bill will go to Gov. Bill Walker for his signature after the Alaska Senate on Friday agreed to changes made to the legislation by the House.

Senate Bill 91, sponsored by North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, aims to reduce Alaska's rising prison population and save money from the state's corrections budget — which consumed $280 million of the state's $4.1 billion agency operating budget this year.

The bill's comprehensive reforms to sentencing, bail, probation and parole practices are designed to keep nonviolent criminals out of jail and to generate better results from a state justice system that sees nearly two of every three inmates return to prison within three years of their release.

"We've got to break that cycle, and SB 91 is a paradigm shift that will help us do it," Coghill said in a statement Friday.

The Senate's concurrence vote Friday was 14 to 5. It drew support from the chamber's four Democratic minority members and from 10 members of Coghill's Republican-led majority; all five votes against concurrence came from Republican majority members. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, was absent.

The legislation was drafted with the help of a newly convened Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which includes members with experience in the state court system, law enforcement, public defense, mental health and victims' rights.

The commission's work was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also spent $120,000 this year on a Juneau lobbyist, Kent Dawson.

SB 91 originally passed the Senate last month 16-2. It then went through the judiciary and finance committees in the House before being debated and amended on the floor over the course of four days last week.

The House changes to the bill were varied and wide-ranging. One requires the state to confiscate driver's licenses and issue specially labeled replacements to people ordered not to possess or consume alcohol.

Others increase the mandatory minimum sentence for first-degree murder and guarantee that a prostitute cannot be charged with trafficking herself or himself.

The House's final vote on the legislation was 28-10. The bill still needs to be officially transmitted to the governor.

In a prepared statement, Walker, who endorsed the criminal justice reform effort last year, thanked lawmakers for passing SB 91. He said his administration would review the bill's technical elements "to make sure the policies can be applied as the Legislature has intended."

“Alaska has some of the highest recidivism rates in the nation, so I am pleased to see our state’s elected officials taking action to address this problem while considering the balance between accountability, public safety, and achieving better outcomes from our criminal justice system,” the statement quoted Walker as saying.

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