The House passed SB 54, the rollback to criminal justice reform. Now what?

(Photo by Carole Triem)

After a three-day marathon floor session, dozens of amendments and one threat of retaliation on social media, the House has passed Senate Bill 54, legislation aiming to rollback portions of the 2016 criminal justice reform bill Senate Bill 91.

After the contentious, often-heated committee and amendment process, the bill passed with broad support on a 32-8 vote. It now returns to the Senate.

What’s next?

Senate Bill 54 now returns to the Senate for a vote on concurrence. It’s unclear if the Senate will simply sign off on the changes the House made to the bill or reject the changes, which sets up a potentially messy and lengthy negotiation in conference committee.

Sen. John Coghill, the sponsor of Senate Bill 54 as well as Senate Bill 91, told the Alaska Dispatch News that a conference committee could be possible if the House makes sweeping changes to the bill.

“If we have to go to a conference committee, I’m not too sure what the timing would be on that, but we would struggle,” Coghill told the newspaper. “If we’re staying on task, if we’re really looking at those things — public safety, public outcry (that) victims’ advocates are talking about — I think we’ll do well. The talk about repeal and replace, that’s a whole different ballgame.”

Today he said he plans to urge the Senate to vote against concurrence, but whether or not his colleagues follow his lead is unclear.

Budget concerns

Like the House, the Senate has also felt the pressure of public outcry for the rising trends in some types of crime. That attention has focused almost entirely on criminal justice reform as a cause, but the Senate has already held a number of hearings that have made clear the Senate leadership believes there’s more to the crime trends (which began climbing well before Senate Bill 91 was passed).

The Senate, which has been more unified on the budget than the House, has also made its concerns about the cost of rolling back criminal justice reform (which is expected, of course, to increase the prison population) pretty clear. Though the Senate doesn’t formally have the bill in its hands, it has already scheduled a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees on Wednesday to hear the latest on the bill and, importantly, review its fiscal notes.

Senate Bill 54 passed the House with a $2.9 million price tag, which is mostly due to anticipated increases in the daily prison population. It passed the Senate with an indeterminate fiscal note.

The state of SB 54

The House voted down a majority of the nearly 50 amendments that were delivered to the House clerk’s office, but taken in total the amendments approved on Monday don’t represent a particularly significant rollback to criminal justice reform.

Just three amendments were approved on Monday:

  • On 23-17 vote, the House approved an amendment that would add a requirement that people convicted of any level of criminal mischief with “damage to public or private property” perform 25 hours of community service.
  • On a 33-7 vote, the House approved an amendment that would add an additional non-voting member to the Criminal Justice Commission who represents the Department of Health and Social Services. The amendment says the member would either be the department’s commissioner or a delegate.
  • The House also approved without objection an amendment that clarifies the release standards for people who have been convicted, but not yet sentenced. The law allows some people to be released on bail or electronic monitoring this time, and the amendment would clarify that people convicted of serious crimes cannot be released under that law.

The weekend saw much more significant changes to criminal justice reform that the budget-conscious legislators in the Senate would most likely prefer to see reviewed before passing it into law. Here’s a summary from an earlier update we published:

  • A rework of petty theft sentencing guidelines (theft of something $250 and less) to up to five days of jail time for the first conviction (it was five days suspended under SB91), up to ten days for the second conviction (it was five days) and up to 15 days for convictions beyond second (it was ten days). Passed 21-18.
  • An hike in sentences for low-level class C felonies that increases jail time for the first offense to up to two years prison time (which also happens to be the same penalty for class B felonies) up from 18 months, two to three years for the second conviction (was one to two under SB 91) , and three to five years for the third and later conviction (was two to five under SB 91). Passed 26-13.

Notable failed amendments

  • An amendment to repeal most of Senate Bill 91 failed 27N-13Y. This is the one that prompted the social media threats we also discussed yesterday.
  • An amendment by Rep. Lora Reinbold would have redefined the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission’s role to put public safety above all other commission priorities. It failed 21N-19Y.
  • An amendment by Rep. David Eastman had the notable achievement of having everyone, Eastman included, vote against it. The amendment would have, for some reason, shortened the window to upgrade misdemeanor theft of something between $250 and $1,000 in value to a class C felony. Currently, multiple convictions within the prior five years can be grounds to upgrade the felony. Eastman’s amendment aimed to reduce it to one year.

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1 Comment on "The House passed SB 54, the rollback to criminal justice reform. Now what?"

  1. Virginia just demonstrated how rational voters respond to mindless legislation like this. They threw out the right wing that was using criminal justice system to misrepresent the usefulness of vindictive incarceration. It would be great if the rational Alaskan voters were to do the same thing.

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