Rep. Daniel Ortiz, NA-Ketchikan, left, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, center, and Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, greet each other on the first day of the fourth Special Session of the 30th Alaska Legisture on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017.

Rep. Daniel Ortiz, NA-Ketchikan, left, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, center, and Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, greet each other on the first day of the fourth Special Session of the 30th Alaska Legisture on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017.

From across Alaska, residents try to sway Legislature on SB 54

The calls came from Bethel, Nome and Fairbanks. There were plenty from Anchorage and the Mat-Su, and some from Southeast.

On Tuesday night, members of the Alaska House Judiciary Committee heard more than three hours of public testimony on Senate Bill 54, a partial rollback of last year’s criminal justice reform bill, Senate Bill 91.

Members of the committee heard from 71 people in person or by phone: According to a count kept by committee staff, 28 voiced support for SB 54 or SB 91; another 33 opposed SB 54 or called for the repeal of SB 91. The opinion of the remainder could not be determined.

Callers’ opinions differed generally along geographic lines and lines of perspective. Testifiers from Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough generally called for legislators to reject SB 54 and completely repeal SB 91. Callers away from those areas were generally in favor of the two bills.

Attorneys, former judges, and those who interact with accused Alaskans (including some redeemed inmates themselves) generally called for the Legislature to pass SB 54 or give SB 91 additional time to work. Crime victims almost universally were against that idea.

“SB 91 is not the cause of the crime wave we are seeing across Alaska. It is opiates and heroin,” said James Christie, a criminal defense lawyer in Anchorage.

Elizabeth Fleming, a defense attorney in Kodiak, reminded lawmakers that research shows long jail sentences don’t deter people from committing crimes again.

“If we treat like them like animals, they will become animals,” she said.

Pat Tyson of Wasilla said that doesn’t matter.

“You’re a criminal when you go to jail. Jail doesn’t make you a criminal. It might make you a better criminal, but that’s not my problem,” he testified.

Former Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sen Tan asked lawmakers to stick to the evidence-based policies of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which drafted the recommendations that went into SB 91 and SB 54.

“Make good policy decisions. You have done a good job. Continue by relying on good data, and we will all be safer and better as a result of it,” he said.”

But there was also Mike Schaffer, a prosecutor at the Municipality of Anchorage, who said that “SB 91 and its aftermath (have) wreaked criminal havoc on the state and on Anchorage.”

Speaking on his own behalf, and not that of the city, he said he’s seen an increase in crime at all levels since SB 91 was signed into law.

Some of the victims of that crime offered their stories.

Leonard Martin of Anchorage, who told lawmakers that one of his family members was murdered this year, said the Legislature made a mistake by not investing in prison alternatives before implementing SB 91.

“You got the cart ahead of the horse on this one, guys,” he said.

“Please make SB 54 substantially tougher. If I could repeal SB 91, I would,” said Edith Grunwald of Palmer. “We must have consequences, even at the lower level, to keep crimes from escalating.”

Grunwald is the mother of David Grunwald, a 16-year-old murdered in late 2016. Edith Grunwald is running for lieutenant governor.

“SB 54 will be the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a leg amputation,” said Noria Clark, who urged the Legislature to pass a “three-strikes” law like her home state of Arizona has. Under Arizona law, repeat felonies result in more prison time.

Jose Delgado told lawmakers he believes he was one of the first people sentenced for a crime under SB 91. In September, he was sentenced for firing a gun toward a man who allegedly stole his dog.

Today, thanks to that bill, he’s working a $6,000 per-month job at a laboratory that tests mining samples. He wore an ankle monitor as he testified.

“Jail does not do anything but make people worse,” he said.

After the public testimony, members of the House Judiciary Committee spent Wednesday debating amendments to SB 54. That process is expected to continue into Thursday.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at

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