Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, left, speaks with Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, as the House Finance Committee meets on how to pay for SB54, a criminal justice bill, at the Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, left, speaks with Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, as the House Finance Committee meets on how to pay for SB54, a criminal justice bill, at the Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Lawmakers amend SB 54 as measure nears House floor vote

Stealing a new iPhone may land someone in jail for felony theft if a new version of Senate Bill 54 becomes law.

In a marathon Thursday session of the House Finance Committee, members considered 16 amendments to SB 54, the planned rollback of last year’s criminal justice reform effort, Senate Bill 91. Shortly before 8 p.m., lawmakers advanced the bill out of committee on a 9-2 vote.

A vote of the full House could come as early as the weekend, and if the House approves SB 54, the measure would head back to the Senate for consideration. The Senate passed a different version of SB 54 earlier this year.

The most consequential amendment of the day came in the late afternoon when Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, suggested lowering the threshold for felony theft from $1,000 to $750. That’s low enough to cover anyone who steals an iPhone X, the $999 top-of-the-line iPhone released today.

The lower threshold reverses (in part) a move made last year in SB 91. Alaska’s felony theft threshold was set at $500 in 1978 and hadn’t been adjusted in almost 40 years. SB 91 boosted the threshold to $1,000 and called for it to be adjusted annually for inflation.

Had the original $500 amount been adjusted for inflation, the threshold would stand at $1,820 today. Seeking to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail, the Alaska Senate had sought a $2,000 threshold last year; the House lowered it to $1,000 before SB 91 passed.

Speaking about his amendment, Pruitt said his constituents are demanding legislative action to fight a wave of crime.

“This is the No. 1 issue if you want to understand why people want a repeal of 91,” Pruitt said.

He argued that because people are personally seeing thefts from their cars and homes, they’re inclined to believe the worst about the ongoing crime wave, which has been tied to an epidemic of drug addiction, a statewide recession, and cuts to state law enforcement.

“There’s a feeling that even the worst of things is happening at a higher level because it’s impacting them,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt’s amendment was opposed by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, who said he doesn’t “believe in turning everything into a felony.”

Gara said a lower theft threshold will put more Alaskans in jail, and there’s no guarantee that will stop the crime wave.

“I think you’re paying for extra jail time for no benefit to public safety,” Gara said.

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, also voted against the amendment. Speaking earlier in the meeting, he said lawmakers need to separate emotion from their work on SB 54.

“The punitive nature of what we have done over the years has not been as effective as we thought it had been,” Guttenberg said, referring to research showing long prison sentences do not lead to lower crime rates.

“Criminal justice is complex, and (a) data-driven (decision) is more important than appeasing my anger,” Guttenberg said.

Among other amendments approved Thursday was one from Gara increasing the maximum sentence for first-time third-degree sexual abuse of a minor. Gara’s amendment increases the maximum sentence to 18 months in jail. The existing maximum is one year in jail, the same maximum for fourth-degree sexual abuse of a minor.

The House Finance Committee also voted 6-5 to lower the maximum jail sentence for disorderly conduct. Earlier in the ongoing special session, the House Judiciary Committee raised the maximum sentence for disorderly conduct to five days. An amendment from Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, reversed that change and restored the maximum to one day.

Lawmakers also approved a handful of amendments fixing minor errors in SB 54. Most of those errors had been introduced by the judiciary committee, which considered dozens of amendments before passing the bill to the finance committee.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that an amendment by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, increased the penalty for first-time third-degree sexual abuse of a minor to 18 years in prison. It is 18 months in prison. This story has also been updated to include the final vote on SB 54 in the House Finance Committee.


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


Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, left, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, co-chair the House Finance Committee as it meets on how to pay for SB54, a criminal justice bill, at the Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome, left, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, co-chair the House Finance Committee as it meets on how to pay for SB54, a criminal justice bill, at the Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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