Special session opens with crime bill compromise
The state House and Senate came to an agreement on a sweeping crime bill, ending a divisive 48 hours between the two chambers while addressing one of last fall’s more prominent campaign issues.
House Bill 49 aimed at restoring confidence in public safety by increasing sentencing, parole and probation guidelines for misdemeanors and all classified felonies.
The change stems from a growing public sentiment that a 2016 law — widely referred to by its bill name, Senate Bill 91 — helped crime rates statewide spike.
This took place three years ago when lawmakers were looking for deep budget cuts; the bill was deemed, in part, a way to reduce prison population and, with that, cut costs.
Critics, however, didn’t wait long too blame the bill for soaring crime rates, saying the bill left law enforcement and prosecutors hamstrung toward significant enforcement.
That bill has since undergone two changes under SB 54 in 2017 and HB 312 last year, but even those changes weren’t far enough for some lawmakers.
In January, Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced four bills: three aimed and repealing sections of SB 91 and a fourth addressing sex crimes.
Last week, the House approved HB 49, which drew from all four bills, but the Senate made changes that added 23 pages to the bill and passed it Tuesday unanimously.
The House refused to accept the changes, forcing a special committee made up of three members from each chamber to negotiate differences.
One of the more significant and politically charged changes calls for repeal of criminal code allowing marriage as a defense in sexual assault.
The argument played out on social media sites, in committee hearings and during respective floor debates.
The House initially said it wasn’t ready to repeal the statute, adding it needed further study during the interim; the Senate ultimately repealed it, following Dunleavy’s initial proposal under SB 35.
Last week the state Department of Law’s Criminal Division director, John Skidmore, said in an interview he believed many people didn’t understand what a change really meant.
“The only people that I’ve actually heard speak out against the elimination of the marriage defense, don’t understand it,” he said. “They don’t understand what the law says. They get confused and think that this will somehow make it illegal for married couples to engage in sexual activity under certain circumstances. That’s not the case.”
Some of the other features include:
- Raising sentencing ranges for felonies closer to pre-SB 91 levels. People convicted of a second Class C felony, such as repeated thefts, could receive between two to four years. Someone convicted of a Class A felony, such as arson, faces between four to seven years.
- Requiring out-of-state registered sex offenders moving to Alaska to register. Prosecutors have long said they don’t want Alaska to become a safe haven for registered offenders moving to Alaska.
- A new crime is established to fight the soaring rates of auto theft: possession of motor vehicle theft tools. To obtain a conviction, prosecutors would have to prove a person possess tools commonly used in theft and has shown an intent to steal.
“We had victims in mind the entire time and I believe that Alaskans, the most important thing — it trumps every other need — is safety and security, and we are on the road to the right direction by what we did today in the agreement that we made,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.
Some lawmakers say the bill represents a first step. Many believe there still needs to be a focus on treatment and rehabilitation to provide balance to the enhanced sentence ranges.
“We do have to invest in treatment and rehabilitation and we have to be serious about that because people have to leave our custody better than we found them,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, a retired police chief. “Otherwise we really haven’t don’t anything at all for the safety long-term for the public, when we release these people back out on the street and we haven’t addressed the underlying causes of their behavior, what brought them into the custody of the state in the first place.”
The bill could come at a high price, at a time when lawmakers are looking to rein in spending while still providing a Permanent Fund dividend.
A preliminary series of fiscal analyses estimates the bill could cost the state about $100 million over the next two years. Lawmakers expect another analysis to reflect changes made by the special conference committee.
One source of costs is reopening the Palmer Correctional Center, which closed in 2016, because of projected growing number of inmates each year.
The state House and Senate have until June 14 to cast a final vote for the agreement.
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