Sweeping crime bill sees opposition

JUNEAU — An Alaska lawmaker’s efforts to put a dent in the state’s rising prison population have run afoul of a victim rights’ organization and the state’s largest police department.

In response to concerns, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, on Thursday reversed course on provisions of a criminal justice code revision aimed at keeping minor-level offenders out of jail and incentivizing criminals with reduced probation time for good behavior.

Alaska’s prison population grew three times faster than the resident population over the last decade, according to an Alaska Criminal Justice Commission Report that recommended ways to reduce the number of prisoners in state care by 21 percent over the next decade and ultimately save the state $424 million. Coghill incorporated many of those recommendations into his bill.

However the state’s Office of Victims’ Rights and the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association said the bill sacrifices public safety to save money and is overly lenient on offenders.

In response, Coghill removed domestic violence from the list of offenses that could see reduced prison sentences, lowered the amount of money needed for a theft to qualify as a felony and removed sex offenders from qualifying reduced probation times. He also added new language requiring drug offenders on public assistance to get regularly drug tested.

While the bill would mandate citations, not arrests, for low level crimes, Coghill added an exemption for property crimes. He said officers were concerned that it would remove their discretion at making physical arrests versus issuing summons. He also gave officers immunity from prosecution for making judgment calls about whom to arrest.

The criminal justice commission had representatives from state departments, law enforcement organizations and elected officials with assistance from Pew Charitable Trusts. The commission issued a report in December recommending changes in how the state deals with pre-trial offenders, sentences nonviolent offenders and supervises people once they’ve been released from jail.

After the hearing, Coghill said he was not surprised by the criticism, as the commission had “recommended some things at a very high level.” He said, however, that both the victim’s rights advocates and police had been given ample opportunity to weigh-in when the state developed its criminal justice commission.

After the hearing, Office of Victim’s Rights Executive Director Taylor Winston said she heard from Coghill’s office after she sent her critical comments and was hopeful that the changes would be written into future versions of the bill.

“It’s really tough because what they’re trying to do is limit the number of people occupying jail space, the easiest way to do that is just in then out,” she said. “It’s important to be contemplative and careful and to take smaller steps.”

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