Alaska House starts voting on rollback of criminal justice reform

As voting began Saturday morning on floor amendments to Senate Bill 54, members of the Alaska House of Representatives found themselves divided into two camps.

The divide wasn’t by political party or caucus.

The divide was about one key question: Should Alaska put more people in jail for longer periods of time, even if it doesn’t reduce crime?

“There’s a difference between wanting more people in jail and wanting less crime, and that’s important,” said Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, advocating for one camp.

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, argued for the other camp.

“It’s not only about whether they make you safer. It’s about public condemnation of an act,” she said.

Last year, the Alaska Legislature followed the recommendations of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and passed Senate Bill 91. SB 91 was a sweeping overhaul of the state’s prison sentences and legal framework. After years of research, the justice commission had concluded that long prison sentences do not reduce crime.

SB 91 promoted alternatives to prison, but one year after it was signed into law, most crime rates are up. Backers of SB 91 say the measure must be given time to work. The justice commission’s recommendations promised results in years, not months. They further argue that the state can no longer afford to lock up large numbers of prisoners for long periods of time.

Opponents say the state must abandon SB 91 as a failed experiment, and public safety is worth paying for. According to the latest available figures from the Alaska Department of Commerce, SB 54 will cost at least $2.9 million per year.

“I think we’re actually here today … because the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission led us down the primrose path with what the Attorney General herself called an experiment,” LeDoux said.

Both sides see Senate Bill 54 as their way forward. That has created a floor-session tug of war. Lawmakers have introduced dozens of amendments. Proponents of SB 91 believe SB 54 should make only minor changes and fix technical problems. Opponents of SB 91 believe it should be rolled back in broad strokes or entirely repealed.

The House is expected to consider amendments through at least Monday, and possibly into Tuesday or Wednesday, a timeline that depends largely on the number of lawmakers who want to make a speech about each amendment.

The tight divide between the camps was revealed with the first amendment.

That amendment, which would have allowed judges to sentence convicts to more jail time for carrying firearms into a courthouse or domestic violence shelter, failed in a 20-20 tie. The House’s coalition majority voted 12-10 against the amendment, which was brought by one of its own members. The House Republican minority voted 10-8 in favor of the amendment, which came from a Democrat.

“That is humbling,” said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, who suggested the amendment.

Subsequent amendments failed on 18-22 votes.

Among Juneau’s House delegation, Rep. Sam Kito III and Rep. Justin Parish are backing the evidence-based approach used by the criminal justice commission.

“If we are going to ignore their recommendations … I think it’s going to create problems for our state in the future,” Kito said as one amendment was debated.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at or call 523-2258.

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