Senate to considers limits of criminal justice reform rollback

How much is too much of a rollback?

On Monday, the Alaska Senate Finance Committee will debate a final amendment to Senate Bill 54, a measure that intends to roll back some of the changes made by last year’s criminal justice reform bill, SB 91.

The amendment addresses sentences for Alaskans who commit a Class C felony for the first time in their lives.

C felonies are the lightest felony crime in Alaska law, and C felony criminals represent 40 percent of the state’s prison population. Any changes to their sentences have a big impact on the cost of the state’s prison system.

Senate Bill 91, one of the biggest changes to Alaska’s criminal justice system in decades, was touted as using an evidence-based approach to emphasize treatment and diversion instead of prison.

The core idea behind the bill was that prison terms for lesser offenses trap people in a cycle. If they go to jail, they can’t keep a job. If they can’t keep a job, they’re more likely to turn to crime to survive.

“You put them in jail, they’re more likely to commit a crime in the future,” John Skidmore, head of the criminal division of the Alaska Department of Law, told the finance committee on Tuesday.

SB 91 made first-time C felonies a probation-level offense, unless special circumstances were involved.

As it is written today, SB 54 would allow judges to sentence first-time C felony offenders to up to a year in jail. That’s more than the 90 days agreed upon by Alaska’s Criminal Justice Commission in a rollback plan earlier this year.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel and co-chairman of the finance committee, said he wants to consider changing that year-long limit.

“The amendment that I am contemplating is to address this range,” he told the committee Friday.

Hoffman was granted until Monday to draft the amendment, an action that delayed the bill’s move to the Senate floor.

Speaking by phone, Kara Nelson, director of the transitional home Haven House, said she feels the finance committee should reduce its rollback.

“I think that they had a good compromise at 0-120 days, and it should stay there,” she said.

Nelson testified against the bill earlier in the week, and that 120-day limit was suggested — but rejected — in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and the sponsor of SB 54, said through a staffer that he supports the 120-day limit likely to come from Hoffman.

Whether the committee accepts that goal remains to be seen.

“We will have a chance to discuss that amendment on Monday,” said Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage and co-chairwoman of the committee, said the goal is to consider Hoffman’s amendment, then advance SB 54 to the floor on Monday.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at or call 419-7732.

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