Senate Bill 54 aims to roll back some provisions of criminal justice reform

Changes to Senate Bill 91 — a controversial bill was enacted last summer in an effort to reduce Alaska’s prison population — are being rolled out as part of Senate Bill 54, introduced on the floor on Feb. 10.

SB 54 implements a set of recommendations from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission that will roll back some of SB 91’s provisions.

SB 91 moved away from tough-on-crime policies such as longer jail sentences, and called for more crimes to be punishable by probation, electronic monitoring and alternatives to prison. Some of the changes have proved unpopular, however, both with law enforcement and with a public that is seeing a rising tide of property crime.

That was the message sent by commission members when they presented the recommendations to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which then drafted the proposed amendments in bill form.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who was instrumental in the passage of SB 91 and who sits on the judiciary committee, presided over the first hearing of the bill in committee Friday.

One of the changes will increase penalties for theft in the fourth degree in order to impact repeat offenders. The bill also would enact a presumptive term of 0-90 days for Class C felonies for first-time felony offenders. The third most significant change is a recommendation that violation of conditions of release be returned to misdemeanor status, punishable by up to five days in jail.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, called theft an enormous issue across the state and questioned whether penalties should be ramped up even more before asking Alaska Department of Law Criminal Division Director John Skidmore what he considered an effective tactic.

“You’re asking the million-dollar question about how do you break the cycle,” Skidmore said, calling the question a regular topic of debate within the criminal justice system.

Recidivism has been estimated as high as 66 percent in Alaska, Skidmore noted.

“Is there one tack versus another that works?” he said. “It’s going to be a case by case analysis, a defendant by defendant analysis.”

Coghill noted that the bill is intended to rectify issues that “people felt very strongly about — places where the greatest consternation has arisen.”

He added there was time for more discussion and changes to the bill, saying, “This is certainly not the only time this bill will be before us.” The judiciary committee is scheduled to revisit the bill on Feb. 24.

Contact Empire reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or

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