Debate about how to balance offender reform with the need for public safety continues as legislators shoot to roll back some provisions of a controversial crime reform bill passed last year.
Senate Bill 91, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill spurred by the work and recommendations from the state’s Criminal Justice Commission, scaled back the punishments for several low-level crimes in an effort to reduce Alaska’s prison population. Now making its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee is SB 54, which aims to fix problems members of law enforcement and Alaska communities say were created by SB 91.
In two public committee hearings last week, some commenters urged legislators to give the changes made in SB 91 more time to work in conjunction with reinvestment in treatment and diversion programs, while others advocated for bringing back jail time for certain offenses that were reduced under SB 91 and giving more discretion to officers and the Alaska Court System.
At its meeting Wednesday, the committee reviewed changes to SB 54 that would further roll back the reductions in punishments for Class C felonies that SB 91 created. Wednesday’s most recent updates to SB 54 include increasing the presumptive sentencing range for first-time Class C felony convictions to zero days to a year. Another change to the bill was to give the option for up to five days of suspended jail time for a first conviction of fourth-degree theft, and up to 5 days of active time for a second conviction of the same crime.
Committee members said these changes should give more discretion to judges when it comes to punishment, a suggestion they heard several times during last week’s public comments. Representatives of law enforcement emphasized in their comments that there needs to be a balance between reducing recidivism and protecting the public.
“I like that it gives the flexibility to the judges and it does, I think, what we want, which is to find that balance,” said Sen. Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) of the changes in the Wednesday meeting.
‘It’s a start’
SB 91 eliminated active jail time for first-time convictions of Class C felonies. A goal of the Criminal Justice Commission’s recommendations was to reduce jail time for low-level, non-violent crimes. Kenai Police Chief Dave Ross said Class C felonies include a wide range of crimes from vehicle theft and burglary of a business to assault.
“I think a lot of the feedback given to the Criminal Justice Commission and the Legislature is that judges ought to have the leeway to impose some jail time for that first offense,” he said.
SB 91 also removed jail time for first and second-time convictions for fourth-degree thefts — those totaling less than $250 — and made violating conditions of release a violation instead of a misdemeanor.
Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik said he supports the efforts of SB 54 to reverse those provisions. He said the Sodotna area has seen thefts on the rise for the last year or so.
“I think it’s a start,” he said.
Ross added that property crimes, like theft, are much more prevalent on the central Kenai Peninsula than violent crimes like robbery or homicide, so changes to the way those who commit thefts are punished will have a greater impact in the area. Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) has been outspoken about both SB 91 and 54, and said the reduction in presumptive ranges for Class C felonies was a mistake that needs to be corrected.
Ross pointed out that it is often a small percent of a given population committing a large percent of crimes, and said he supports bringing back the ability to give jail time for fourth-degree thefts after multiple convictions.
“When people are repeat offenders … we just need to return the tools to the police to take these people off the streets until they either get the counseling and treatment they need or choose to turn their lives around in some other way,” Micciche said.
Micciche, Mlynarik and Ross all said there was a relative lack of input from representatives of law enforcement utilized when SB 91 was being considered.
“I think law enforcement maybe should have taken a larger role in input as the process was rolled out, and I think that at various levels that is happening (now) with law enforcement talking with legislators and trying to participate,” Ross said.
Micciche also said some of the effective dates in the SB 91 legislation were not as well orchestrated as they could have been. Some provisions of SB 91 went into effect July 2016 and January of this year, and some will go into effect in 2018. This coincided with the Alaska Court System changing its bail schedules from setting bail for a number of misdemeanor arrests to releasing offenders on their own recognizance, Ross said.
“So what officers have seen this year is a combination of those two things happening simultaneously and both go to an overall reduction of incarceration for people both immediately after the crime and in the long term,” he said.
Ross and Mlynarik gave credit to the Legislature for re-evaluating the provisions of SB 91, but added that more communication with members of law enforcement might make for smoother transition.
“If there were a preference, let’s bring law enforcement together on something so huge and reaching,” Mlynarik said.
The other piece
A major component of the crime reform recommendations made by the Criminal Justice Commission was an emphasis on rehabilitation for offenders and treatment for those suffering from substance abuse issues. Several people who commented during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last week argued that SB 91 has not been given enough time to work and that changes shouldn’t be made yet.
The commenters cited programs like PACE, a program that works with offenders out on probation by giving immediate and short punishments for violations, as a positive effort that helps with rehabilitation.
Ross and Mlynarik acknowledged a gap between the push for treatment and diversionary programs and the reduction in punishments. Mlynarik said that if laws are made less stringent without other plans or programs in place to better help with reform, money might be saved institutionally, but the public might not be adequately protected.
“Obviously the people that commit these (crimes) need to be held accountable or helped or both, and I think that (SB 91) undercut that ability,” Mlynarik said.
Micciche said getting offenders access to treatment options is in part dependent on them getting in front of a judge. Ross explained that when some drug possession crimes were reduced under SB 91, those who had first-time convictions no longer faced jail time and could be released on their own recognizance. When the possession crimes were felonies, he said, offenders had to be taken to jail and later in front of a judge who could refer them to the state’s Alcohol Safety Action Program.
“Some of those components that the state may put forward as far as treatment and stuff may be coming,” Ross said. “I’m not sure that we’ve seen that at the same time we’ve seen the reduction in incarceration for those folks.”
Mlynarik echoed those thoughts. He said one would hope there would be a program to help people deal with substance abuse issues, but that if not, the criminal justice system needs to be able to hold them accountable.
Micciche said the ultimate goal is to separate repeat offenders who need to be in jail from those who have made a mistake and need help recovering.
“For people that need help, I realize these drug problems, especially heroin, (are) hard to get off,” Mlynarik said, citing long, intensive treatment programs as the most effective. “… It still has to be dealt with.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. John Coghill (R-North Pole) said Wednesday he would like to take action on SB 54 on Friday.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.