In this December 2015 file photo, Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the recent uptick in heroin usage and violent crime in Juneau. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire File)

In this December 2015 file photo, Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the recent uptick in heroin usage and violent crime in Juneau. (Michael Penn/Juneau Empire File)

With clashing views on SB 91, Lt. Kris Sell resigns from Criminal Justice Commission

  • By LIZ KELLAR
  • Saturday, February 18, 2017 9:37pm
  • News

Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell has resigned her seat on the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a 13-member group created by the state Legislature in 2014 to address the rising number of Alaskans in prison.

Sell’s resignation comes as push-back from law enforcement and the public caused the commission to issue a set of recommended changes to Senate Bill 91 that were submitted to the Legislature on Jan. 30. The Criminal Justice Commission drafted the recommendations that eventually resulted in the passage of SB 91 in what has been called the biggest change to Alaska’s criminal justice system since statehood. Instead of tough-on-crime policies, SB 91 called for more crimes to be punishable by probation, electronic monitoring and alternatives to prison.

Sell declined to comment, but has been vocal in her advocacy for SB 91.

Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson called the resignation an internal issue and stressed that he has nothing but accolades for Sell’s work.

“Lt. Sell is an outstanding officer and she really serves the community well,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.

But Johnson alluded to his own position on SB 91 — as outlined in a town hall meeting he conducted on Jan. 17 — which is that while the bill has sound underlying principles, in reality some of its unintended consequences made policing Juneau very difficult.

“They have fixes they are working on right now,” Johnson said, citing sentencing for first-time Class C felonies as an example.

“It didn’t make sense that there was no jail option,” he said; one of the recommended changes is to enact a presumptive range of 0-90 days at a judge’s discretion.

Johnson also cited a proposed change that would allow for jail time for repeat fourth-degree theft offenders. Currently, there is no jail time for offenders who steal less than $250 worth of goods, leading criminals to exploit the law by repeatedly “loading up on $245 worth of stuff,” Johnson said. “There was no deterrent to that.”

Lt. Sell’s position on SB 91 “did not match the mainstream position in law enforcement, or what the Juneau Police Department felt,” Johnson added. “She was a very dedicated commissioner and she did a really great job. … She knew that what we were thinking and what she was thinking was a little bit different, and so she decided to resign.”

In 2015, during a speech to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, she said the idea is to find the “sweet spot” where punishments are severe enough to deter crime, but not so severe that they leave offenders with no alternative but crime.

“As you run people through the criminal justice system, they become more dangerous,” Sell said at the time.

In a Jan. 25 meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sell noted that she did not speak for the Juneau Police Department, adding, “I came in thinking I would be tough on crime. … I wanted people who are hurting other people to be in jail. I sat through the first year of meetings with my arms crossed over my chest.”

But, Sell said, her participation on the commission made her confront her theories about how criminals behave, which included a belief that prison sentence time correlates to behavior change even though “not a lot of soul searching and epiphanies is happening in prison.”

Sell told the committee members that she had to start factoring in mental illness and drug addiction, a process she admitted was “not a lot of fun.”

“I had to come to a place in my own reasoning … where being tough on crime was actually just being tough on people and not treating the reasons they are committing more crime,” she said. “The underlying cause remains unaddressed.”

Sell said that she developed a “new vision” that as soon as someone got arrested, their reasons for committing the crime could be examined and they could be connected with services such as drug rehabilitation.

She acknowledged that budget crunches meant there was a gap between SB 91’s goals and implementation, adding, “Things aren’t in place yet. It’s a rough time.”

Sell, who was appointed to the commission by then-Gov. Sean Parnell in 2014, was the only Juneau resident on the commission and filled the slot reserved for a member of a municipal law enforcement agency. In 2016, she was named Citizen of the Year by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and won JPD’s Jackie Renninger Community Policing Award for her dedication to building strong relationships between the police and the community. On March 4, she will be honored by AWARE as one of its Women of Distinction.

Chief Johnson maintained that the commission’s proposed changes were solid and that his department is committed to remaining engaged despite Sell’s resignation.

“We’ll keep trying to make it a better process, and I think it will all work out in the end,” he said.

Contact Empire reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or liz.kellar@juneauempire.com.

More in News

Graphic by Ashlyn O'Hara
Borough, school district finalizing $65M bond package

Efforts to fund maintenance and repairs at school district facilities have been years in the making

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the House Majority Coalition spent most of Friday, May 13, 2022, in caucus meetings at the Alaska State Capitol, discussing how to proceed with a large budget bill some have called irresponsible. With a thin majority in the House of Representatives, there’s a possibility the budget could pass.
State budget work stretches into weekend

Sessions have been delayed and canceled since Wednesday

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Alaskans for Better Government members La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson and ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake embrace on the floor of the Alaska State Senate following the passage of House Bill 123, a bill to formally recognize the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes.
Tribal recognition bill clears Senate, nears finish line

Senators say recognition of tribes was overdue

The Alaska Division of Forestry’s White Mountain crew responds to a fire burning near Milepost 46.5 of the Sterling Highway on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, near Cooper Landing, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Cooper Landing Emergency Services)
Officials encourage residents to firewise homes

The central peninsula has already had its first reported fires of the season

In this September 2017 file photo from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, beluga whales arch their backs through the surface of the water. Of Alaska’s five distinct beluga whale populations, only Cook Inlet’s is listed as endangered. (Courtesy the Alaska Department of Fish and Game)
Celebrate belugas with virtual programming next week

The three-day event will include conferences and activities

Capt. Corey Wheeler, front, commander of B Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, walks away from a Chinook helicopter that landed on the glacier near Denali, April 24, 2016, on the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska. The U.S. Army helped set up base camp on North America’s tallest mountain. The U.S. Army is poised to revamp its forces in Alaska to better prepare for future cold-weather conflicts, and it is expected to replace the larger, heavily equipped Stryker Brigade there with a more mobile, infantry unit better suited for the frigid fight, according to Army leaders. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File)
Army poised to revamp Alaska forces to prep for Arctic fight

The U.S. has long viewed the Arctic as a growing area of competition with Russia and China

A man fishes in the Kenai River on July 16, 2018, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion/file)
Emergency orders, fishing conditions updated

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish released a Northern Kenai fishing report Friday

My Alaskan Gifts is seen at the Kenai Municipal Airport on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai Municipal Airport gets gift shop

Locally sourced Alaska products are the newest addition to the Kenai Municipal… Continue reading

FILE - A sign requiring masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus on a store front in Philadelphia, is seen Feb. 16, 2022. Philadelphia is reinstating its indoor mask mandate after reporting a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s top health official, announced Monday, April 11, 2022. Confirmed COVID-19 cases have risen more than 50% in 10 days, the threshold at which the city’s guidelines call for people to wear masks indoors. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
US marks 1 million COVID-19 deaths; 15 more reported in Alaska

The state Department of Health and Social Services reported 15 more COVID-19… Continue reading

Most Read