With the start of the state Legislature's next session just days away, lawmakers focused on addressing crime legislation are anxiously waiting to learn whether Republicans or a bipartisan coalition will take control of the House.

The resulting power dynamic could either help or hinder those hoping to repeal Senate Bill 91, Alaska's controversial crime reform law. 

"We’re all sitting on pins and needles," said Senate Judiciary Chair Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer), who is paying particularly close attention to who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. "House organization could be announced yet tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, or it could be a few weeks, but who sits in the judiciary chair on the House side is going to make a huge difference in what we can accomplish."

Hughes has a vision for a full repeal of SB 91, saying her replacement will receive Senate support to end what she called a "revolving door" of inmates worsened by their time in custody under the bill's provisions.

"One of the changes I’d like to see is something different happening behind the prison walls," Hughes said. "If we toughen up the sentences through a repeal, we need to do things differently in the prison. And the rehabilitation that was going to be done on the street if SB 91 were going to stay in place, if we repeal it, we need to do the rehabilitation behind prison walls to a degree that we have never ever done it before in this state."

She is proposing that inmates receive services, including substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation, job training and educational opportunities, from private-sector contractors.

"It’s going to take some money up front for the rehabilitation," Hughes said, adding that she believes it will ultimately reduce recidivism and save money. 

Her other ideas include separating first-time offenders from the general population, and adopting a three-strikes law in Alaska.

"You’re talking about rehabilitation in the prison in one hand and three-strikes on the other hand," Hughes said, "What a lot of people don’t understand is you can’t force an inmate to go through rehabilitation programs. They have to opt to do it. [...] However, if we have a three-strikes law, they would be motivated to get their act together." 

As for pretrial, the third and final phase of SB 91, the future of the year-old Pretrial Enforcement Division and its controversial risk assessment tool is uncertain. 

"[PED] was supposed to be collecting and providing data, which we have not seen," she said. "Things were not transparent as far as the data."

The risk tool, based on a computer-generated algorithm, assigns defendants a score after their arrest. The score is intended to indicate the likelihood someone will commit new crimes or fail to appear at their future court hearings if released before trial.

Several cases last year left Alaskans doubting the tool's reliability, including the arrest of a serial rapist who scored a two out of 10

House Bill 312, passed by the Legislature last year, repealed a mandatory release mechanism that required judges to release certain defendants who scored low. Judges are now able to consider out-of-state criminal history when making bail decisions, but it still does not affect the overall score. 

"So far I think it’s been a dismal failure for the most part," Hughes said.

In the House, Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) is also waiting on the numbers when it comes to SB 91. 

"That’s something I need to research more this year: What were the anticipated savings, what have been the real savings?" Josephson said. "I think that what we’re going to find is that the real savings haven’t matched what was anticipated and so that’s a consideration and a concern as well." 

In the event of a full repeal, Josephson says lawmakers would have to find another way to fund PED. 

"Part of the problem is that the savings of SB 91 are supposed to at least nominally fund PED, and so if you scrap SB 91, you have to figure out where you’d get the money to employ those 60-some-odd people," he explained.

Josephson believes starting over might be the only way to restore public trust in Alaska's criminal justice system. He's also deeply concerned about budgetary constraints and their impact on crime.

"When we heard that the state, through budget cuts, was unable to prosecute everything that it otherwise might have, that really bothers me," he said.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said public safety is "Job No. 1," and a priority that will be reflected in his budget. 

"My sense of this governor is — partly because he’s said this — that he intends to do what he said. And so that would apply to restoration of the full permanent fund dividend, and that might apply to his budget cuts proposals, and that would apply equally to the repeal of Senate Bill 91," said Josephson. 

Josephson agrees with Hughes that the House Judiciary chair will play a critical role in Dunleavy's ability to make good on his public safety promise. 

"There are certainly supporters of full repeal, but then there were supporters of full repeal in the Fall of 2017 and it was not repealed. In fact, efforts to repeal it in full were not narrowly defeated, they were pretty soundly defeated. So we’ll have to see what comes," said Josephson. 

"If we have a chairman or chairwoman who is resistant to the repeal and the replacement that is desperately needed to reverse the crime trend, it’s going to be very difficult," Hughes said. "If we have someone that’s willing to work with us on these matters, I believe we can get a lot done this first session." 

Lawmakers also plan to tackle crime initiatives outside of SB 91 that are believed to have bipartisan support.

Those address a loophole in Alaska's sex offense sentencing laws and a 2015 statute allowing offenders to receive significant credit for time served at home on ankle monitors — both highlighted by the Justin Schneider case

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