Kara Nelson, Director of Haven House, testifies against Senate Bill 127 in front of the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, April 19, 2018. the bill is sponsored by Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, right. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Kara Nelson, Director of Haven House, testifies against Senate Bill 127 in front of the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, April 19, 2018. the bill is sponsored by Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, right. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Southcentral Alaskans plead for SB 91 rollback, Juneau testifiers urge otherwise

Southcentral Alaskans offered passionate testimony in support of a rollback of criminal justice reforms, but despite outcry from those in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, the idea appears to have little momentum in the Alaska Senate.

Senate Bill 127, repealing most parts of the criminal justice reform measure known as Senate Bill 91, is in the Senate Finance Committee.

Finance Co-chair Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, said, “There isn’t support in this building for a full repeal.”

Nevertheless, MacKinnon said holding public testimony is important because while there isn’t support for repealing SB 91, there is support for fixing it.

“I do think the path forward is to make surgical fixes … rather than wholesale repeal,” said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth, testifying Thursday in front of the finance committee.

While the committee reserved the morning for state officials, the afternoon was open to calls and in-person testimony from members of the public.

Many callers urged lawmakers to take action on a crime wave afflicting Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough. Some said they believe SB 91, enacted by the Legislature in 2016, is contributing to the wave.

Public testimony lasted for almost three hours Thursday afternoon, with a majority in favor of SB 127 or some repeal of SB 91. A count offered by a Republican senator’s staffer measured 30 testifiers in favor of repeal and 23 against, with some questionable. A count offered by a Democratic senator’s staffer included 35 testifiers in favor of repeal and 22 against.

Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, backed SB 91 but now is supporting SB 127. She told members of the finance committee that she is hearing the views of her constituents, and other senators also heard some of those views Thursday.

[Opinion: Why Senate Bill 91 needs to be repealed]

“Break it down, break it apart,” said Kristin Bush of Eagle River, who urged the end of SB 91. “This is not Los Angeles or Detroit,” she said.

“The federal government provides the military. The state government should provide adequate public safety,” said Lisa Ameen, testifying from the Mat-Su.

While there was plenty of support for a repeal of SB 91, the measure also had a significant number of supporters on Thursday. Many of those supporters said repealing the legislation will leave Alaska with the problems SB 91 was intended to solve: a rising prison population and increased costs.

Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said repeal would be “a step backward for Alaska.”

Talia Eames of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska added that Alaska Natives are disproportionately imprisoned by Alaska’s criminal justice system, and SB 91 may fix that issue.

“We need to give these new laws a chance to work,” she said.

Those comments were not received well by proponents of the repeal.

“Hearing the Native groups and the special-interest groups testify today … disgusts me. In Anchorage today, we have crime that is running rampant,” said Shawn Williams of Anchorage.

“To not repeal SB 91 would be criminal. Let’s end this fiasco today,” he said.

School funding

Before the discussion of SB 127 began at 9 a.m. Thursday, the Senate Education Committee started work at 8 a.m. to hear from education officials on HB 339. House Bill 339, boosting public school funding by $100 per student, is in the Senate Education Committee and also lacks momentum in the Senate.

“It’s not going to go anywhere,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and chairman of the education committee, about HB 339.

The measure has been approved by the House but lacks support in the Senate Majority. Stevens, a former college professor, said he isn’t sure that simply offering more money will improve education in Alaska.

Other senators have offered similar comments and have supported additional reforms, such as improving internet access at rural schools, and school consolidation.

Juneau-Douglas High School student Noah Williams woke early to speak to the committee. He carried his laptop with him and used it as a prop. He is a web designer, he explained, and it was tough for him to afford the laptop, but he needs it as a tool.

“I can’t afford to have a tool that doesn’t work well when I need it to,” he said. “Please don’t buy cheap tools or cheap schools. Help us out.”

While HB 339 appears to lack Senate support, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage and the sponsor of the bill, said after the hearing that it could yet reappear as part of a deal to end the Legislative session.

“It’s hard to read the tea leaves in this building,” he said.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.

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