A sweeping reform of Alaska’s criminal justice system has passed the Legislature and is headed to Gov. Bill Walker.
On Friday, the Alaska Senate voted 14-5 to agree with changes to Senate Bill 91 made by the House of Representatives. The Senate previously approved SB 91, and Friday’s procedural vote sends the bill to Walker, who has 15 days ─ not counting Sundays ─ to veto it, sign it, or let it become law without his signature.
“Any reasonable person will see this as a bipartisan accomplishment,” said Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.
SB 91 is likely the biggest change to Alaska’s criminal justice system since statehood ─ not because it shifts sentences, but because it represents a shift in thinking.
“It’s a major, major change in the way this state attacks the criminal justice system,” said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.
Instead of tough-on-crime policies characterized by longer jail sentences and more swift punishment, SB 91 calls for more crimes to be punishable by probation, electronic monitoring and alternatives to prison.
“I would say Alaska has been in an eye-for-an-eye mode,” said Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage. “I think what we’re understanding now is something much deeper.”
SB 91 is based on suggestions from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a group tasked by the Legislature to study the state’s criminal justice system. In December, the commission offered 21 recommendations intended to reverse the growth of the state’s prison population.
Research conducted by the commission found that growth is being driven by a rise in the number of people returning to jail after their release. The commission found that prison is such a big disruption to daily life that many people imprisoned for minor offenses ─ or those simply unable to pay bail ahead of a court hearing ─ were unable to survive without returning to crime.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, was a member of the commission and spurred SB 91 through the Legislature.
He said he remembers when Alaska’s prisons were filled with people who had committed violent or severe crimes.
“It’s flipped now. The majority now is misdemeanants and behavioral health issues,” he said. “Drugs, alcohol and behavioral health are creating a big concern for us.”
After the bill passed the Senate, it went to the House, where lawmakers rolled back some of the Senate’s proposals.
Among the biggest was a provision that would have allowed police to issue citations for crimes up to C felonies. That was reversed by the House; police still must make arrests on those crimes. Another was an action by the House to keep a lower ─ albeit inflation-adjusted ─ threshold of $1,000 for felony theft. The Senate had supported a $2,000 limit.
While the Senate approved the bill by a large margin, it didn’t garner universal applause.
Among the ‘no’ votes was Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, who said SB 91 is “too much, too fast,” but now that it’s passed the Legislature, it becomes a question of how you make it work.
Coghill himself said the bill likely will require modification in years to come.
“This is probably a work in progress, there’s no doubt about it,” he said, and people should expect portions to come back for revision.
For now, the question is what the governor will think of the bill. Alaska has a line-item veto law, and Walker could excise parts of the bill he disagrees with.
By email, spokeswomen for the governor said the governor will not discuss the bill until it officially reaches his desk.
In a brief statement, the governor said he is pleased with the work the Legislature has done.
“From here, my office and the Department of Law will perform a very thorough review of the technical elements of the bill to make sure the policies can be applied as the Legislature has intended,” he wrote in the emailed statement.
Coghill said he has not spoken with the governor about the bill, but he has been working with the Department of Law extensively to make sure the bill passes muster.
“As far as we know, we’re in good shape,” he said.