House Judiciary Committee calls for tougher jail sentences, but costs will rise

Senate Bill 54 is advancing in the Alaska House of Representatives.

Late Thursday night, the House Judiciary Committee moved the bill to the House Finance Committee after approving eight amendments.

“We stuck it out tonight, it’s 11:05. We were at it every night (this week) until 9, at least,” said Rep. Zach Fansler, D-Bethel.

SB 54 rolls back some of the changes made with last year’s Senate Bill 91 by increasing the amount of jail time for nonviolent offenses. Most notably, SB 54 as currently written will allow judges to sentence first-time C felony offenders to up to one year in prison. Under SB 91, first-time C felonies were only punishable by suspended jail time and fines.

C felonies make up 40 percent of Alaska’s prison population, and SB 91 was intended to save money by promoting alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and legislators sought to reduce the growth in Alaska’s prison population, thus avoiding the need to build a new prison.

The judiciary committee’s amendments are likely to raise the cost of the bill. In a presentation given to the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year, analysts said SB 54 would cost the state approximately $4.3 million per year. That cost will now be higher as a result of the House Finance Committee’s action.

But Alaskans have reacted negatively to SB 91 and are demanding change. The justice commission in January suggested a handful of modifications, which formed the basis of SB 54. The Alaska Senate took those changes and went further, calling for tougher sentences than the justice commission recommended. The Senate then voted 19-1 to approve the bill.

On Thursday night, the House Judiciary Committee did the same thing again, further rolling back SB 91.

“This is a good bill. It addresses the problems law enforcement are facing,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage and a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Four amendments came from House Minority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage. Two came from Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, and two came from Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.

Among the amendments is one that allows someone to be held in custody for up to 48 hours for bail processing if they’re accused of most class C felonies. Another removes the possibility of administrative parole.

One of the amendments from LeDoux and accepted by the committee allows a court to jail someone for up to five days (instead of one day) for disorderly conduct.

An amendment offered by Millett increases jail time for someone who injures a law enforcement officer, police officer or firefighter.

The net effects of those amendments were still being determined by legislative staffers on Friday; the House Finance Committee, which was scheduled to take up the bill at 1 p.m., canceled its meeting in order to allow more time for analysis.

Public testimony on the bill was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Saturday and run to 5 p.m. A second session of public testimony will take place starting at 5 p.m. Monday.

Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch said in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee that the city supports the bill.

In addition to advocating tougher sentencing options for people convicted of multiple low-level thefts, Koelsch asked the Legislature to increase funding for violence prevention, drug and behavioral health treatment, and post-prison re-entry programs.

Debates among members of the judiciary committee were testy at times as debate continued for several days, but the committee ultimately voted 6-1 to pass it on to the finance committee.

“By golly, we’re going to finish this and we’re going to get Alaska back where it needs to be and protect the public, and that’s what I want,” Fansler said.


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


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