Former backer of SB 91 now seeks its repeal in Legislature

Sen. Mia Costello speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce in 2012. (Juneau Empire file)

Sen. Mia Costello speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce in 2012. (Juneau Empire file)

Sen. Mia Costello has heard enough.

Seventeen months ago, the Anchorage Republican was among the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 91, a sweeping reform of Alaska’s criminal justice system. Instead of jail terms for low-level nonviolent crimes, SB 91 promoted counseling, treatment and other alternatives to jail.

But in the year and a half since SB 91 became law, Alaska has seen crime rates rise, almost across the board. Backers of the bill say it’s inappropriate to link that rise to SB 91, which still has not been fully implemented.

Even if the picture isn’t yet clear, Costello says it’s not worth the risk. On Friday, she announced that she will seek the total repeal of SB 91.

“I think from every point where you shine a light on this issue, there’s a problem with SB 91. There’s a problem with the opioid crisis. There’s a problem with the economy as a whole and with the recession that we’re experiencing. There’s a problem with funding,” she told the Empire by phone. “We need to clear the deck and start from the beginning.”

Costello said Tuesday she has a draft copy of a bill to repeal SB 91, and she plans to pre-file it before next year’s regular Legislative session.

Though Costello was one of SB 91’s sponsors and repeatedly voted for it, she’s heard enough complaints and concerns from her constituents to change her mind.

Costello said she’s been stopped by people at the grocery store, coffee shop and other places, and they want some kind of action on Senate Bill 91.

“They’re frustrated and angry, and we have a responsibility to do something about it, now,” she said.

Gov. Bill Walker is supporting a partial rollback of the bill. He’s endorsed Senate Bill 54, a bill that was drafted by SB 91’s original creators and already passed the Senate 19-1. SB 54 is on the agenda of next month’s special session.

Others are leaning toward Costello’s approach — though it might be appropriate to say that Costello is leaning toward theirs.

Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, passionately opposed SB 91 when it was first brought to the Alaska House, and she’s hasn’t changed that view.

Earlier this year, she drafted an amendment that called for SB 91’s repeal, but it never came to a vote because of opposition from members of the coalition House Majority.

“They sabotaged the process and tabled public safety,” Reinbold said Tuesday.

Reinbold, like Costello, acknowledges that repealing SB 91 will not fix every problem, but she believes it’s a start.

“The justice system is broken at multiple levels and repealing significant parts or all of Senate Bill 91 would be a step in the right direction,” she said.

While Gov. Walker is calling for reform, not repeal, next month’s special session provides an avenue for either approach if legislators amend SB 54 into a full repeal.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, is a member of the House’s coalition majority who opposed SB 91 last year.

He predicted an earnest and passionate debate on the matter in Juneau.

“There will probably be dozens of amendments on SB 54, and I suspect most of them will be aimed at swinging the pendulum back toward a toughening of the criminal statutes,” he said.

Whether that will lead to an outright repeal, he’s less certain.

“In terms of the odds of an outright repeal, what I would say is the climate … in both bodies is going to be much more dubious about the nature of these (Senate Bill 91) reforms,” he said.

He said there’s also the possibility that this year’s Legislature could find the right balance, through an amended version of SB 54, to satisfy people without a repeal.

“We might just be able to hit the sweet spot,” he said.


• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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