Mia Berzanske, right, speaks to the Senate Judiciary Committee with Kara Nelson, executive director of Haven House, against SB 54 on crime and sentencing at the Capitol on Friday. Berzanske is currently a resident of Haven House, a halfway house for women coming out of prison. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Mia Berzanske, right, speaks to the Senate Judiciary Committee with Kara Nelson, executive director of Haven House, against SB 54 on crime and sentencing at the Capitol on Friday. Berzanske is currently a resident of Haven House, a halfway house for women coming out of prison. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Rolling back criminal justice reform draws outcry, praise

  • By LIZ KELLAR
  • Sunday, March 5, 2017 7:17am
  • News

Advocates of criminal justice reform pleaded Friday with legislators to stay the course, arguing that programs still being implemented need a chance to prove they can work.

Speaking during a hearing on a bill designed to roll back some of the provisions of Senate Bill 91 — the sweeping criminal justice reform bill Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed into law last July — several witnesses testified about their own experiences within the criminal justice system. They said SB 91 has provided many people with the opportunity to change their lives for the better through drug treatment and less jail time.

Olivia Olsen, a two-time felon, said all of her crimes involved theft, adding ruefully that she was one of the petty re-offenders drawing so much scrutiny.

“Addiction has such a powerful hold on you,” Olsen said. “What I was doing was to support my habit.”

Because relapse is part of recovery, Olsen said, it is important not just to hold re-offenders accountable but also to provide them with a path toward rehabilitation and some hope.

“Without help, you go back to the same thing you knew,” she said. “To move forward and have a system working with us and not against us, instead of sitting in prison, you will have more success, I guarantee you.”

Mia Berzanske told Senate Judiciary Committee members that she had been an addict since high school, but PACE — a state Department of Corrections program that works with probationers and responds to violations with short terms of incarceration — got her into treatment instead of sending her back to jail for long stints. Now, she says, she is a leader in the recovery community.

‘Smart justice’

During testimony in the Alaska State Capitol Wednesday and Friday on Senate Bill 54, the bill that aims to rectify some of the perceived problem areas of SB 91, law enforcement officials begged for judges to have more latitude in sentencing defendants. Attorneys and reform advocates, meanwhile, asked the Legislature to allow more time for reforms to actually get implemented before instituting any changes.

Reforms have to go hand hand-in-hand with reinvestment and diversionary programs, argued Tara Rich, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

“We need to give them more time to roll out before we make changes to policy,” Rich said before addressing specific problems she saw in SB 54.

Before they set about “burning down the house to roast a pig,” Rich continued, legislators should determine if the fixes they want to implement will actually solve any problems and should give SB 91 a chance to work they way it was designed to. SB 91 was intended to reduce prison overcrowding and recidivism by rehabilitating low-risk offenders instead of sending them to jail.

Kara Nelson, the director of Juneau’s Haven House, which supports women recently released from prison, reiterated the importance of making decisions based on data, saying SB 91 was “smart justice, not soft on crime.”

“I don’t know why we’re going backward,” Nelson said. “Getting tough on crime just (increases) criminality.”

But Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan told the committee that he could not emphasize enough the Legislature should not hamstring the courts and law enforcement from being able to do their jobs to preserve public safety.

“I support amendments that provide the broadest latitude and discretion,” he said, adding that judges should be able to sentence defendants on a case-by-case basis, not a “cookie-cutter” basis.

Ron Flint, the manager of Juneau’s Nugget Alaskan Outfitter and the only business owner to testify, said the economy is challenging enough without the added stress of “emboldened” criminals shoplifting from local businesses.

“We have to get some fixes in place,” Flint said, adding that his end-of-year inventory, where his “shrinkage” from theft jumped 40 percent last year, has become less of a gut check and more of “punch in the gut.”

SB 54 is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill will be back in committee on Monday, when its fiscal impact will be discussed.


Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or liz.kellar@juneauempire.com.


Nugget Alaskan Outfitter owner Ron Flint speaks to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of SB 54 on crime and sentencing at the Capitol on Friday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Nugget Alaskan Outfitter owner Ron Flint speaks to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of SB 54 on crime and sentencing at the Capitol on Friday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

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