House begins digging into crime bill; debates to continue today

Rarely has a discussion about bar fights been so soberly pursued.

On Monday, the Alaska House began floor debates on Senate Bill 91, a sweeping reform of Alaska’s criminal justice system, wrapping its work at 9 p.m. with a vow to keep working today.

House lawmakers began floor debate on the measure Monday afternoon, but after one hour and 45 minutes of debate, they had considered only six of the 36 amendments proposed by lawmakers.  

Given the slow pace of progress, Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, called a temporary halt to the proceedings.

Leaving the floor, Chenault said it made more sense for the House to break until 7 p.m. instead of breaking after every amendment for questions. He said he hoped the extended break would allow speedier action once the floor session resumed, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

When lawmakers finished at 9 o’clock, they had only considered 13 amendments.

Several on Monday evening were offered by Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, who attempted to grant judges the ability to sentence offenders to more jail time than allowed in the latest version of the bill.

Senate Bill 91, inspired by the work of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, intends to reduce jail sentences for nonviolent criminals in an effort to reduce the state’s jail population, cut costs, and decrease the number of people who return to jail after release.

While the bill, pushed by Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, moved slowly but steadily through the Senate, it has faced a tougher challenge in the House, where lawmakers in committee have walked back many of the bill’s reforms.

Josephson’s amendments would have addressed various offenses, including bar fights.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, explained that because the bill is so large, every lawmaker has an interest, and that makes it difficult to gain quick passage.

“It covers a lot of ground; there are a lot of different pieces to the bill,” he said.

He added that because the bill promises to cut prison costs, it is also viewed as part of a solution to the state’s $4 billion annual deficit.

“This one is definitely a piece to try to get us out of here,” he said of the need to reach a budget solution.

Kito views criminal justice reform, Medicaid reform (already passed by the House and Senate) and cuts to oil and gas subsidies (expected to reach a vote this week) as first steps to a budget solution.

As he explained, the Legislature would “put those together with the budget so we can start looking seriously at the revenue measures” to pay for state operations in the coming year.

Of the six amendments considered by the Legislature on Monday afternoon, two were rolled to the bottom of the calendar for later vote, one restored a study on “social impact bonds” supported by the House Judiciary Committee but rejected by the House Finance Committee, and three incorporated the text of separate House bills into the criminal justice measure.

The text of House bills 83, 324 and 339 was incorporated into Senate Bill 91. Considered separately, the bills were not expected to reach a floor vote.

HB 83 removes the requirement for the Alaska Judicial Council to collect statistics about civil litigation. HB 324 allows a physician assistant, advanced nurse practitioner or a retired doctor (or other medical professional) to sit in the doctor’s seat on the violent crimes compensation board. HB 339 expands the crime of third-degree arson to cover a vehicle burned on private property. Currently, third-degree arson only covers a vehicle burned on public property.

All three amendments passed despite objections that they could make SB 91 vulnerable to a court challenge under the Alaska Constitution’s single-subject clause.

That clause requires all legislation to hold to a single topic. If it doesn’t, it can be thrown out.

“There is nothing criminally related about this,” Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said after one particular amendment.

Gara’s argument was rejected by lawmakers ─ including members of the Democratic-led minority caucus ─ who approved the amendment anyway.

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