Senate passes sweeping rollback of criminal justice reform, promising big price tag will be worth it

Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican who's been one of the leading advocates of repealing Senate Bill 91, applauds during an April 10, 2019 floor session. "A sense of safety and security trumps every other need Alaskans have," she said when House Bill 49 passed the chamber on May 14, 2019.

Update: The House voted against concurring with the Senate’s changes to the bill. The Senate will have an opportunity to recede from its changes. If it doesn’t, the legislation will head to a conference committee, which legislators will likely doom the bill’s passage before the end of the session. House leadership said there were too many changes made by the Senate to fully understand and approve on the concurrence vote. 

Original story

Senators from across the political spectrum voted in favor of repealing and replacing broad swaths of 2016’s criminal justice reform bill Senate Bill 91, even as many legislators openly worried about the cost and efficacy of the changes.

The version of House Bill 49 that passed the Senate on Tuesday morning is more closely aligned with the tough-on-crime legislation Republican Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy pitched as part of his “War on Criminals.” The bill passed with on a remarkable 20-0 vote. The passage sets up a standoff with the House, where leadership says they were duped by the administration into passing the bill in the first place.

The legislation increases penalties on many crimes with changes targeted specifically on crimes related to drugs and sex. It also rolls back many pieces of 2016’s Senate Bill 91 that loosened penalties surrounding pretrial, parole and probation.

There were many changes offered through floor amendments that added back in some programs and laws aimed at reducing the likelihood that people commit new crimes, like an expansion of reentry case plans for inmates.

Cost concerns

Still, the legislation is anticipated by the administration to steeply grow the state’s average daily prison population by more than 700 inmates on top of the current daily average of 4,314. The current prisoner capacity is 4,664 inmates, which means the state will have to find additional prison beds under the increased sentencing in the bill.

To that end, the administration has proposed reopening the shuttered Palmer Correctional Center at a cost of $20.2 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

[READ MORE: Senate crime bill would cost Alaska more than $100 million over first two years. Here’s how.]

All told, the legislation is expected to increase state spending by $44.9 million in upcoming budget. That price tag will grow with an estimated $56.4 million price tag in the next year before it levels out in the $58.3 million range.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said he was particularly concerned by the costs in the bill. He also warned that the fiscal notes likely underestimate the actual costs.

“This bill spends a lot of money. The conference committee on the operating budget is finishing its work and it will easily cut $220-$240 million out of agency and statewide operations below the status quo budget. This bill gives back more than a quarter of that from the word ‘go,'” he said. “And those numbers are optimistic. They don’t include any new inmates from the crimes it creates. … They assume just a few extra days in jail for crimes where the sentence cap goes up by months and an extra month or two for crimes where the cap rises by years.”

He also noted that the Palmer Correctional Center would be expected to reach capacity in just a few years, reminding the Senate that the price tag on the state’s latest prison, the Goose Creek Correctional Center, was $300 million and it has a $40 million annual operating budget.

He said he would ultimately support the measure, saying attention now needs to turn to programs that stop criminals from committing new crimes. Without that, he said he’s worried it’ll lead to an increase in crime as people spend more time behind bars at what he called “criminal school.”

“This bill will lock people up for longer, they’re still not going to get treatment, they’re not likely to have a job when they come back to our neighborhoods,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s a recipe for change.”

Many other moderate legislators also raised concerns about the cost of the bill, with Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, saying he expects there to be supplemental budget requests for the bill next year as the administration grapples with the bill’s price tag.

He said ultimately, what will make Alaskans safer is things like filling the vacant positions with the Alaska State Troopers.

Worth it

Still, many conservative senators said they were eager to improve public safety at any cost. Sen. Bert Stedman, the Sitka Republican who oversees the operating budget, said the cost was “worth it.”

“It’s worth it. Keep them behind bars, why let them out early?” he said, specifically focusing his comments on murderers. “I don’t personally have a lot of sympathy for them. That’s for the minister and the Lord. … We’re going to work with the budget as we work forward, we all know we’ve got huge budget constraints … but we have the financial capacity to keep these murderers locked up. We’ll work through the budgetary process to try to minimize the impact on society of keeping these scoundrels behind bars. … But frankly I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the criminals.”

Crime has become a leading political issue in Alaska, and many legislators focused public outcry solidly against Senate Bill 91, arguing it played a large role in the recent spike in crime even though much of the spike has been more closely attributed to a rise in opioid abuse and cuts to law enforcement and prosecutors.

For many in the Anchorage area and the Mat-Su Valley, the rise in property crime has been a rallying cry for many.

“A sense of safety and security trumps every other need Alaskans have,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

Uncertain fate

The legislation has support of Gov. Dunleavy, but it’s uncertain what will happen in the House.

The House passed a more moderate rollback last week, believing they had the support of the governor on the compromise. House leadership said they blindsided when the administration appeared in front of the more welcoming Senate to ask to toughen up the legislation.

“All I can do is tell you, in every meeting I had, they were 100 percent on board with what we were doing, and it’s very disappointing that they came out and basically said that that did not happen, because it did,” Rep. Tammie Wilson Wilson, the co-chair of the House Finance Committee, told KTOO.

House Rules Committee chair Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, warned the Senate against making sweeping changes last week, saying there’s not enough time left to vet them. He reiterated that position on Monday in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News.

“I think the Senate’s probably killed it for this session,” he said. “I think you’ll see it come back in special session, I really do. But that’s just an opinion.”

Still, with a 15-member Republican minority in the House, it would only take a handful of House members to reach the majority needed to agree with the Senate changes and send it to Dunleavy to be enacted.

The Legislature is currently on Day 120 of the 121-day legislative session.

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