Senate reshapes criminal justice landscape

In a landmark 16-2 vote, the Alaska Senate has approved one of the most sweeping changes to the 49th state’s criminal sentencing structure since statehood.

Senate Bill 91, which now goes to the House for final approval in the dwindling days of the 29th Legislature, represents an abandonment of tough-on-crime programs that called for increasing jail sentences as a deterrent.

“I think you can call this a little bit of a paradigm shift, if that’s what you want to call it,” said the bill’s lead sponsor Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, as lawmakers prepared to vote. “That means a lot of things are going to change.”

The overall goal of the bill is to reduce the number of people who return to prison after being jailed for the first time. According to statistics gathered by the state and the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, two-thirds of Alaskans jailed for a crime will end up in jail again on another offense.

“What we’re doing obviously is not working,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “We’ve put obstacles in the way of lower-level offenders succeeding.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, tough-on-crime policies focused on increasing sentences for minor crimes as a deterrent measure, but that approach hasn’t worked, lawmakers said Saturday.

“Instead, what we’ve done is placed lower-level criminals into the system where they become better criminals,” Micciche said.

In addition, longer sentences have meant Alaska’s prison population has ballooned.

“Alaska’s prison population has grown by 27 percent in the last decade,” the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission declared in a December report recommending changes to the state’s justice system.

Without changes, the commission said, the state will run out of space in its existing prisons as soon as 2017. Building a new prison would require hundreds of millions of dollars. The Goose Creek prison opened in 2012 at a cost of $240 million.

Facing a growing prison population — and a growing expense to care for it — the Legislature created the bipartisan justice commission in 2014 to recommend a plan.

The commission created a 21-point plan that was released in December. The Alaska Legislature, led by Coghill — who sat on the commission — turned the plan into Senate Bill 91.

“Two-thirds of the people going out of our jails are going right back in, and within a short time,” Coghill said. “We asked the commission to look at what we’re doing, what can we do differently, how can we change the paradigm in Alaska”

In broad strokes, the 111-page bill reduces penalties for lesser offenses and encourages nonviolent offenders to be released on bail. Instead of setting bail amounts simply in accordance to the degree of the felony or misdemeanor, the state will take into consideration whether a crime is violent, how much money a person has, and whether they’re likely to appear in court if released.

“The main aim is to make Alaska a safer place. I think this bill gets there,” Coghill said.

Coghill is a Republican and the Majority Leader of the Senate, but on Saturday, he garnered support from the Democratic Senate Minority when it came time to vote on Senate Bill 91.

“It’s historic and potentially game-changing legislation,” said Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, was among the votes for the bill.

“We have some people sitting in jail for a long, long, long time just because of a misdemeanor, and I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “For Juneau and Southeast, Lemon Creek is in pretty good shape, but we’re overcrowded even at Lemon Creek.”

While SB91 received widespread acclaim, it didn’t garner universal support. Two Republicans, Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, voted against it.

Each said he felt it came down a little too much on the side of leniency for criminals and not enough on the side of protections for victims.

“I feel like I’m the guy who is raining on the parade,” Stoltze said after suggesting a handful of amendments on the Senate floor.

One of the two adopted makes possession of GHB, a commonly used date-rape drug, a felony. The other lowers the threshold for felony credit card theft to $50 from $2,000.

While victims’ rights organizations (including Juneau’s AWARE and the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault) have come out in support of the bill, Stoltze cited a letter from eight organizations opposed to it.

Coghill said he read the letter, and though the eight said they were concerned, “they couldn’t come up with any specific recommendations. … I think they feel jail is the only option that is reasonable to them. I think it’s more fear than it is fundamentals.”

Micciche, at the end of a press conference following the vote, reminded his audience that the Senate’s vote isn’t the final word on the legislation.

The bill now goes to the House, where the House Judiciary Committee had scheduled a meeting Sunday to consider it.

“This is not the end, although it is a paradigm shift,” Micciche said.

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