SB 54 holds hope for curtailing repeat crime

One of the most frustrating parts of the state’s recent criminal justice system reform efforts for Kenai Peninsula residents has been to watch consequences for property crimes decrease.

That was an irritation for Soldotna-area businessman John Taylor. The owner of Kenai Diesel and Marine on Kalifornsky Beach Road, Taylor got tangled in a court case when his business was robbed in December 2016. Alaska State Troopers arrested Scott Deboard, 20, of Kenai in connection with the theft as well as a series of other thefts, fraud and drug and weapon offenses.

Altogether, Deboard faced charges in more than 15 cases, some felonies and some misdemeanors, largely related to theft or fraud and dating back to summer 2016. He pled guilty to many of the charges Thursday, with Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran saying he would receive about two years and four months of prison time combined for the variety of charges.

That was an unpleasant surprise for Taylor. He had hoped Deboard would get more prison time for the litany of charges.

“The criminal doesn’t care anymore because he’s just going to get a slap on the wrist for doing it,” he said.

Most of the charges on Deboard’s docket were class C felonies, misdemeanors or violations. Those categories of crime were all targets of the sweeping crime reform bill passed in 2016, Senate Bill 91, which was meant to reduce the incarcerated population the state by rehabilitating more criminals instead of imposing just jail time. However, for cases like Deboard’s, it means many of the presumptive ranges for sentencing were reduced.

Serial theft cases, in which a single defendant is charged with a number of thefts or burglaries, crop up on the central peninsula occasionally. In town hall meetings, residents have expressed concerns about repeat offenders being able to get out of jail on probation or bail and continue committing thefts.

In Taylor’s case, he said he was able to recover the items Deboard stole, but he was not the only case of theft in the past years or so. He was just one who got caught, Taylor said.

When he expressed frustration about that during Deboard’s change of plea hearing Thursday, Moran replied that Deboard would receive suspended time, which would come into play if he were to be released and then commit another offense.

“Sometimes we like to give people the opportunity to rehabilitate,” she said.

The changes in SB 91 have been a flame point across Alaska, both for law enforcement and the public, since the law’s passage. Parts of it, including pretrial services, will not go into effect until January 2018.

In response to public concern, the Legislature will take up a bill to tweak parts of the criminal justice system adjusted by SB 91 beginning Monday. The changes contained in SB 54 give judges the option to include jail time in sentences for class C felony convictions, extending it up to one year, and would adjust the penalties for class A and B misdemeanors as well as for violating conditions of release.

The Alaska Association of Police Chiefs published a letter dated Oct. 16 outlining its concerns about SB 91 and supporting the passage of SB 54, additional resources for the Department of Law, funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs inside and outside correctional institutions, restoring judicial discretion and placing a statutory limitation on releasing repeat offenders on their own recognizance or promissory bond.

The letter raises additional concerns about SB 91, saying criminal behavior is changing and that recidivism is increasing.

“The promises proposed by S91 can’t be fulfilled given the current fiscal situation,” the letter states. “As implemented, the changes required by SB91 will required years before functionality. The people of Alaska are experiencing the void created between what was and what may be. However, what may be is not here yet and has no definite timeline.”

Kenai and Soldotna’s police departments reported increases in property crime, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting data released earlier this fall. Kenai Police Chief Dave Ross told the Clarion in a previous interview that changes included in SB 54, such as bringing back the ability to jail repeat offenders for offenses like fourth-degree thefts, would be helpful.

SB 54, which is cosponsored by senators John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, and Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, has already passed the Senate and awaits discussion in the House of Representatives. Gov. Bill Walker added it to the docket for the special session, which is set to begin Monday. The House Committee on State Affairs has a joint hearing scheduled on the bill on Monday at 12:30 p.m.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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