ANCHORAGE—“There’s a lot of great locations in the state of Alaska, Juneau is certainly a great location, Anchorage is a great location, Wasilla is a great location,” said Gov. Mike Dunleavy, adding, “Delta is a great location. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. A lot of great locations.”
That was the governor’s response to the potential location of a special session during his news conference in Anchorage on Monday that renewed the push for his four crime bills that he says are an utmost priority for his administration.
The slate of crime bills range from generally popular changes like closing loopholes in Alaska’s sex crime laws to more controversial ones like steeply increased sentences for drug users. There’s also the cost that’s caused some legislators heartburn: About $41 million for the increased sentencing bill alone.
The governor batted away concerns about cost—saying simply that he didn’t think the increased spending conflicted with his priority to pay out larger dividends—and said he isn’t convinced by the push to rehabilitate criminals and lower the chance they commit new crimes.
“Some of these people need to be put in prison for their actions,” he said. “We would all like this to be a wonderful place where nobody hurts each other. I understand what the philosophies are of some folks, but I can also tell you that you ask the average Alaskan what they want, they want to be safe. At any cost they want to be safe.”
The plan in the House
The attention was all focused on the House, where many supporters of criminal justice reform still hold key positions. The key figure is House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, who told media on Monday that he’s more focused on other elements of criminal justice: Making sure there are enough troopers, prosecutors and defenders to keep the system running.
“It’s great to talk about bills, but I want to look in the governor’s budget and see where in the budget is he making more of a priority for public safety workers and prosecutors, because if we don’t have the public safety workers we’re nowhere,” Claman told KTVA.
Some alarming statistics, like the Department of Law’s high rate of declining to prosecute misdemeanor cases has generally been chalked up to insufficient prosecutors. With already-high caseloads, prosecutors around the state have had to prioritize what they’ll bring to trial.
The House had a new omnibus crime bill on the agenda Monday that Claman described as pulling together elements of Dunleavy’s crime bills and others that had broad support in the Legislature. He said further changes to criminal law could be addressed with additional research.
The House Finance Committee did get underway with its deep dive into crime on Monday afternoon, with a hearing on how a hypothetical “Offender Joe” would move through the criminal justice system, including looks at how parole and probation work.
Meanwhile, the Senate continued to push ahead the governor’s crime bills. After also voicing skepticism about passing the governor’s slate of crime bills earlier in the session, the Senate appears like it will have the crime bills in the Senate Finance Committee’s hands by Wednesday.
On rural public safety
One of the brewing complaints brought by the House about the governor’s budget and plan for crime is its treatment of the Village Public Safety Officer program. Legislators have already sparred with Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price over what they felt was a dismissive attitude toward the VPSO program that seems to suggest it may not be integral to rural public safety.
Dunleavy said discussions about the future of public safety in rural Alaska and where the VPSO program fits in will still be a matter of discussion, but he said some kind of change is needed.
“My plan is to have discussions with stakeholder groups in rural Alaska, where the VPSO program is located, but the nature of those discussion are going to be: OK, what can we do to get different outcomes, what can we do to effect some change?” he asked. “Based upon that premise, I’m open to wherever these conversation lead us as long as there’s an actual action plan that’s coherent and is comprehensive the VPSO program—which I’m very familiar with, I’ve had a number of friends who are VPSOs—the question is is the program in its current form and the way it’s been implemented, is it helping to reduce crime in rural Alaska and is helping to reduce perpetrators.”