During his State of the State speech shortly after taking office, Gov. Mike Dunleavy declared a “war on criminals.” After a unanimous vote Tuesday, Dunleavy now has a chance to sign a more official declaration of war on offenders in the state.
The final version of House Bill 49, which makes sentences harsher and rolls back large portions of criminal reform legislation Senate Bill 91, passed the Alaska Senate on Tuesday by an 18-0 vote (two members were absent). That vote came a week after the Alaska House voted 36-2 to approve the bill.
Dunleavy confirmed during a press conference Tuesday that he intends on signing the bill into law, saying the bill is “great for Alaskans.”
HB 49 increases sentencing ranges for crimes including drug possession, drug dealing, sex crimes and more. The drafters of the bill, including Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, told reporters recently that HB 49 will send more people to prison for longer. The state will likely have to reopen Palmer Correctional Center, ship inmates out of state and possibly even build another facility, Kopp predicted.
Proponents of the bill have asserted that this bill is only half the solution. Many legislators, including all three members of Juneau’s delegation, want to see the state commit resources to drug and mental health treatment.
Dunleavy acknowledged this as he spoke to media members Tuesday, saying that “law-abiding Alaskans come first,” but that he’s hoping to see more resources go into treatment and reentry programs.
“Our administration recognizes that you need both to have a comprehensive approach to public safety,” Dunleavy said.
HB 49 has gone through multiple versions. The House put it together originally, and then the Senate made changes to it to make it much harsher. Then a conference committee, basically a negotiating group made of members of both houses, met and made compromises on many of the items.
Imposing harsher sentences, proponents of HB 49 have argued, will deter at least some criminals from committing crimes. Juneau District Attorney Angie Kemp said in a recent interview that reforms in SB 91 have posed “a challenge” for prosecutors around the state, and that people committing crimes in the state have been more willing to break the law because sentences were lightened.
“You’d be a fool to think that people who are committing these crimes don’t know that it’s, by and large, very difficult to prosecute those cases,” Kemp said.
Juneau Police Department chiefs were not available for comment Tuesday, but JPD Chief Ed Mercer has said in the past that some parts of SB 91 have made life difficult for law enforcement officials. When asked in February whether he favored a total repeal of the bill, he told the Empire that forming legislation will take some in-depth thought.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as just repealing it 100 percent,” Mercer said at the time, “but I think some amendments when it comes to dealing with repeat offenders over and over and clearly separating people who are career criminals out there to address them at a different level (than lower-level offenders).”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.