House passes what will be third major revision of controversial Senate Bill 91

(Photo by Carole Triem)

The House passed House Bill 49 on Wednesday following a floor session that featured a 20-page amendment that eased off some of the biggest proposed rollbacks of 2016’s controversial criminal justice reform legislation Senate Bill 91.

The legislation passed the House on a 24-14 vote. It would institute tougher sentences on sex crimes and drug offenses, create a new crime related to car thefts, ensure more rape kits are tested in a timely fashion and require out-of-state sex offenders to register when moving to Alaska.

Aside from the budget and the dividend, crime has been one of the biggest issues on the Legislature’s agenda this year. With a week left in the regular 121-day session, the House Majority Coalition patted themselves on the back for a “repeal and replace” of Senate Bill 91.

Minority Republicans argued throughout the day for essentially a wholesale return to pre-Senate Bill 91 criminal laws.

The version of House Bill 49 that emerged from the House Finance Committee earned Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s endorsement on Monday. It would have set tough sentencing ranges for many crimes with one of the more controversial changes being a stiff increase in penalties for first- and second-time minor drug offenses.

The Dunleavy administration had requested the change in order to put increased pressure on offenders in an effort to extract information, but it ran counter to the thinking in criminal justice reform that low-level first-time offenders are better served with short sentences and drug treatment instead of long sentences that expose them to more serious criminals.

The House eased off those changes in a sweeping 20-page amendment that was bitterly opposed by minority Republicans. The minority argued they hadn’t had enough time to review the amendment, filed numerous amendments to the amendment and argued that it would water it down.

Efforts to amend the bill to keep in place tougher penalties and other changes were all rejected.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp, a member of the majority who’s been closely involved with crime legislation in recent years, argued in favor of the amendment. He said the law would still be tough on crime but make sensible changes. He also said the change had the support of the administration.

“This administration has been worked out with the administration as something that is not only acceptable but is considered a repeal and replace,” he said.

The words “repeal and replace” were used frequently by the majority coalition during the debate.

“What you have before you is a bill that repeals and replaces the harmful provisions of SB 91,” she said. “We’ve heard from Alaskans, from our constituents, that they’ve had enough.”

The legislation now heads to the Senate, which has already scheduled hearings on the legislation for today.

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