Three years ago, House Rep. Andy Josephson made a choice that quickly cast him as an outlier among his Democratic-led minority caucus. He voted against the sweeping public safety changes under Senate Bill 91.

The former prosecutor saw a complex, yet-flawed bill that was deemed, in part, a way to reduce the prison population while cutting costs at a time when lawmakers looked for significant budget reductions to offset a multi-billion-dollar gap.

“It takes about a week for a trained lawyer to read SB 91; that’s how long it takes, if you do it properly,” he said. “I was alarmed by what I read. I could tell it was designed to as creatively as possible find every potential way of easing penalties that one could imagine [...] I was concerned about the cumulative effect of all of those things at once. I decided that someone needed to sound the alarm bell.”

Josephson’s tune changed on May 20, when he joined 35 colleagues in approving changes put forth under House Bill 49, a 93-page bill that repealed significant sections of SB 91 while making additional changes not found in the 3-year-old bill.

On Tuesday the Senate joined the House with unanimous support for HB 49, aimed at restoring confidence in public safety by increasing sentencing, parole and probation guidelines for misdemeanors and all classified felonies as well as new laws addressing current trends.

The change stems from a growing public sentiment that the 2016 law — widely referred to by its bill name SB 91 during last year’s election season – needed to be significantly revised. Critics didn’t wait long after SB 91 passed to blame the bill for soaring crime rates, saying the bill left law enforcement and prosecutors hamstrung toward significant enforcement.

SB 91 has undergone two changes under SB 54 in 2017 and last year's HB 312, but even those changes weren’t far enough for some lawmakers.

Among those is Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello, R-Anchorage. Costello was a co-sponsor of SB 91, but in late fall 2017, she began speaking out against it as friends and constituents cited the new law for growing crimes in their neighborhoods. The fatal Sept. 10, 2017, shooting of paint store owner Gregory Gill tipped the scales, said Costello, who began pushing for a repeal last year under her own bill, SB 127.

State Sen. Mia Costello (File/KTVA)

“It was that night, I honestly could no longer look myself in the mirror, and say I support this bill,” she said. “I no longer could stand by the bill, knowing how Alaskans were suffering.”

Costello didn’t serve on any of the three committees hearing crime bills this year, but for nearly two months she reminded colleagues changes needed to be about victims, not just fulfilling campaign promises.

She closed out nearly 20 floor sessions with a story shared by a crime victim.

“I worry about what happens when we craft policy in theory without seeing its real-world impact,” Costello told her colleagues in a mid-May speech. “I worry about decisions made from people who aren’t facing the consequences of these decisions. I fear that was our oversight with the introduction of overhaul of our crime laws.”

Changes began in January when Gov. Mike Dunleavy rolled out four bills. Sections of each became the final product, which is common with omnibus crime legislation.

Some features of HB 49 include:

  • Judges will no longer be required to use a highly controversial pre-trial assessment tool when laying out conditions such as bail. The changes afford judges more discretion. Last year before changes under HB312, judges were not allowed to consider a person’s out-of-state record, tying their hands and requiring release.
  • Raising sentencing ranges for felonies closer to pre-SB 91 levels. People convicted of second Class C felony conviction — say theft greater than $750 — could receive between two to four years. Someone convicted of a class A felony, such as arson, faces between four to seven years.
  • Reverting to drug sentencing prior to SB 91. In other words, dealing any amount of heroin would be a class A felony offense. The simple delivery, even if there is no money exchanged, is still considered dealing.
  • Certain drug possession convictions for offenses without jail time will be treated as a misdemeanor punishable up to one year in jail. A second offense within 10 years, however, will be considered a class C felony.
  • Prosecutors can aggregate value of stolen goods covering several charges within a six-month period and charge someone with a felony. This was added to hold serial thieves accountable at the highest possible level.
  • New laws protecting children and adults from indecent viewing, a surreptitious act either through production of photos and video, or acting as a Peeping Tom. Convictions for producing photos with children or adults would be considered a registrable sex offense.
  • A new offense for solicitation or producing an indecent photo of a minor features defendants 18 or older and victims 16 years or younger, plus there must be at least a four-year age difference between the two. It’s not a registrable sex offense.
  • People convicted of a registrable sex offense in another state will be required to register in Alaska if they move here. Prosecutors told lawmakers out-of-state registered sex offenders saw Alaska as a safe haven from registering.
  • The bill considers the act of masturbating in front of an adult a class C felony for indecent exposure, but pushes the act to a class B felony if it’s committed in front of someone younger than 16.
  • Timely processing of rape kits, which must be sent to crime lab within 30 days of collection, then tested within a year. Victims must also be notified within two weeks of completed testing. This was part of Rep. Geran Tarr’s HB 20.
  • 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.

Last year 2,945 cars were reported stolen in Anchorage, according to data tracked by the Anchorage Police Department. That’s down slightly from 2017, but still more than triple from numbers gathered in 2014, according to APD’s records.

The reform comes with a hearty price tag — about $91 million in the first two years, according to a series of financial analyses, and would require re-opening the Palmer Correctional Center, which closed three years ago, to accommodate a projected rise in inmate population.

“The costs are always concerning when we have a fiscal gap and we have challenges in that regard,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer. “But I do not believe, and I don’t believe the public thinks either, we should spare expense when it comes to public safety.”

What’s left for HB 49 is getting Dunleavy’s signature, which the governor said on Wednesday will be forthcoming. 

“We will be dealing with and having discussions with folks all summer long and in the fall in preparation for potentially moving some initiatives next year that would assist with the recidivism issues, and the re-entry issues and the substance abuse issues,” Dunleavy said Wednesday. “I think you have to attack many of these issues from a multi-pronged approach and that’s what we plan on doing. This was the first step.”

Dunleavy spent part of Thursday with U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who is visiting Alaska to learn about urban and rural public safety issues.

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