Alaska Senate takes lead on reforming SB 91
Members of the Alaska Senate are taking the lead on changes to a major overhaul of the criminal justice system lawmakers passed last year, Senate Bill 91.
Legislators who supported the measure at the time said they knew it would need fixing later. On Wednesday, Senate leadership outlined what that work would look like.
A report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission recommends 14 changes to SB 91, ranging from technical tweaks to larger-scale adjustments. Because SB 91 became law last July, empirical data on potential, unintended consequences doesn’t exist yet. The commission and Senate leadership said they relied instead on input from police officers and the public to craft proposed changes.
“We’ve heard from the people of Alaska,” Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said at a press conference Wednesday. “We know that you are frustrated and we understand and share that frustration.”
One of the biggest frustrations for police, according Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, stems from sentencing for first-time class C felonies, such as an assault or robbery, under Senate Bill 91. For example, a vehicle thief convicted for a first offense might avoid jail time, even though it’s a felony.
“Members of law enforcement were frustrated that this provision was over-broad and did not provide for an offender’s immediate incarceration if the offender posed a danger to the community,” the commission concluded in its report, recommending that the offense carry a presumptive jail term of up to 90 days. “Members of the community were offended by this provision and felt that it did not express community condemnation strongly enough.”
When it comes to petty theft of $250 or less, critics say SB 91 lacked teeth because no jail time could be imposed until a third offense.
“Business owners, law enforcement officers and prosecutors feel this provision has emboldened some offenders to commit more lower-value theft crimes,” the commission wrote in its report.
It now recommends increasing jail time for a third offense from five to 10 days, noting that some members of the commission believed the recommendation still didn’t go far enough.
That specific provision is one of the reasons Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, spoke out against SB 91 last year. Now that it’s law, Josephson applauds a review.
“I wish that we wouldn’t have had to conduct an experiment,” Josephson said. “I think it’s unfortunate that these corrections have to be made, but it’s better late than never to get these things fixed.”
In a year stacked with delicate decisions about the future of the state, both the House and the Senate agree that stopping crime, including petty crime, is still a priority.
Senate leadership is asking anyone with input on how to improve the criminal justice system to send an email at email@example.com.
Coghill, a sponsor of SB 91, said a package of new bills based on the commission’s recommendations will be introduced within the next week.