As the Alaska legislative session enters its final week, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing two significant crime-related bills. One bill would allow public safety officers in far-flung villages throughout the state to carry firearms while another bill would reduce the penalty for possession of schedule I and II drugs, like heroine and cocaine, from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, introduced the former, Senate Bill 98. The bill would amend a current law regarding the training of village public safety officers (VPSO). Officers who meet minimum standards and training would be allowed to carry guns while on the job thanks to the bill.
The introduction of SB 98 follows the fatal shooting of Thomas O. Madole in late March. Madole was a VPSO employed in Manokotak, a Southwest Alaska village of 440 people not far from Dillingham. He was responding to a call for help, possibly a threat of violence or suicide, when village resident Leroy B. Dick, Jr. shot and killed the officer.
Madole wasn't carrying a firearm. Village Public Safety Officers are unarmed "peace" officers employed by Native nonprofit corporations with state funding. They often work in the village where they grew up and may be faced with arresting family members, friends, neighbors or former classmates. They are generally on-call 24 hours per day and work weekends and holidays, all without backup.
Olson said that it's time the state had this discussion, and it's irrational to continually place these officers in the face of danger unarmed.
"VPSOs are vital to Alaska's rural communities, and it's time to adapt the program to the reality (they) encounter," he said.
The bill was referred to the Community & Regional Affairs Committee. Olson's office gave no indication as to when and if the bill will reach the House.
And as a Democrat introduces legislation related to guns -- typically a priority of the GOP -- Republican senators are moving to change laws that put people in jail for small quantities of drugs, traditionally the turf of Democrats.
Currently, if an Alaskan is caught possessing even a small amount of schedule I and II substances -- a laundry list of opiates, depressants, stimulants and hallucinogenic substances -- they're charged with a felony. But if passed, Senate Bill 56 would make such possession a class A misdemeanor, which still carries with it up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Offenders would receive the less severe charge only if the drugs were small in quantity, there was no evidence of intent to distribute and no harm resulted from the drugs.
Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, introduced the bill.
SB 56 passed the Senate 17-2. And the two dissenting votes were Democrats, Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Hollis French. Neither of the senators returned calls for comment Saturday. The bill was sent to the House on Thursday and read on the floor on Friday. Now, the House Judiciary Committee is reviewing the bill; it will hold a meeting on SB 56 on Monday.
Speaking before the Judiciary committee on March 4, Dyson said the bill's intent is reducing both over-criminalization and the immense costs of incarceration. The Alaska Department of Corrections estimates each prisoner costs the state between $50,000 and $70,000 a year, and most of the offenders are jailed for non-violent offenses.
"We are filling our jail with people who have done no harm," Dyson said before the committee. "I think using these addictive drugs is a bad behavior, but in my view" it shouldn't result in a felony charge.
The budget for the Alaska Department of Corrections is more than $323 million a year, up from $167 million a year in 2005. Legislative researchers estimate the changes would save up to $14 million a year, Dyson said in a phone interview Saturday.
In 2011, the majority of incarcerated individuals under state supervision were sentenced for nonviolent offenses. This number has been steadily rising -- going from 54 percent in 2007 to nearly 60 percent in 2011, according to an Alaska Justice Forum report. Drug offenders represented about 8 percent of the population, up from 6 percent in 2002.
Dyson also said the department of correction's commissioner, Joe Schmidt, told the senator that if arrests continue at current rates, the state may need to construct another prison like the Goose Creek Correctional Center, which cost $250 million to build.
The Senate backed the bill because of the shifting stance on incarceration and the War on Drugs, Dyson said. Back in 1982, when Alaska's current drug laws were enacted, Republicans bought into the concept of zero tolerance, or "nail them and jail them," he said.
"Nationally, we're starting to realize our strategy for imprisonment in regards to the War on Drugs isn't working," Dyson said.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com