Now that crime has become the dominating political issue of the day, the House Judiciary Committee held a meeting on Senate Bill 54, the Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed criminal justice fix to be taken up in the October special session, this Monday.
It was another legislative meeting in the hopes of finding some clarity amid the frenzy, inviting folks from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, the Department of Law and the Anchorage Police Department.
There was plenty of interesting, nuanced information that came out in the meeting, including Deputy Attorney General Robert Henderson’s comments that “a full repeal of SB 91 is dangerous,” but let’s focus on the input from Anchorage Police Department Capt. Sean Case.
Anchorage has been the focal point of the furor over the spike in crime and is a hotbed of opposition to Senate Bill 91 (Anchorage Sen. Mia Costello capitalized on the movement by announcing she’d introduce a straight repeal for the bill she supported in 2016). So it’s the officers that patrol those streets that many legislators seem most intent on listening to.
Case told the legislators that the police department supports Senate Bill 54 as it stands, mirroring the message sent by the Anchorage Assembly earlier this month.
“The Police Department is in full support of the passage of SB 54,” he said. “I think what we see in 54 are some issues that have come up in the last year or so and we believe 54 addresses those issues we’re currently seeing.”
Case and other testifiers were repeatedly asked by legislators what else he would like to see in Senate Bill 54. Even with some prompting by Republican legislators, Case stopped far short of saying Senate Bill 91 needs to be repealed (in fact, he recognized there’s real potential in the bill to make things better). Instead, he focused on the much more tricky issues that contribute to crime.
“We have a need for treatment facilities in the state of Alaska, whether it’s substance abuse, whether it’s mental health,” he said when first asked about what he’d put in the bill. “We also have a need in the state of Alaska to try to divert those in involved in a criminal activity, particularly when we know there’s a mental health issue or a substance abuse issue, at the street level instead of weeks and months later in the criminal justice system. … If we have the ability to impact some of these offenders early on, that’s going to yield higher results in the long run.”
That’s a pretty important statement that fits in with what supporters of the besieged SB 91 have been saying amid the backlash: The parts of SB 91 that are intended to lower crime are still not in place. In fact, most of the diversion and treatment programs, which will be available to people in the pretrial population for the first time, is on track for Jan. 1, 2018.
Case, who’s a member of the Criminal Justice Commission tasked with updating and monitoring Alaska’s criminal justice reform effort, also recognized there’s a lot of potential contained in SB 91. He seemed to chalk up the problems that individual officers are having with SB 91 with the fact that big, sweeping change is difficult to handle.
“When the rules are changed that creates some disenfranchisement, and we’re seeing that but I’ll also say that I don’t think that means that the traditional model of policing or criminal justice in the state of Alaska has to remain the same,” he said. “I think we can still make an impact and I think we can still benefit the people of Alaska by changing the way of going about business. The problem is right now we’re in that in-between stage. We don’t have all of criminal justice reform in place. A lot of our officers aren’t at that next step yet and that next step isn’t even an option.”
The special session is set to begin on Oct. 23 with Senate Bill 54 and a wages tax on the agenda. Senate Bill 54 rolls back a select few pieces of Senate Bill 91, including reverting violating conditions of release to a Class B misdemeanor, adding the option for jail time back to first time Class C felonies and for petty theft adds up to five days suspended for the first conviction and five days active prison for the second conviction.
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