The Legislature has already reached compromise on the crime bill, other issues still unresolved

Legislators roll out a compromise on House Bill 49 during a conference committee meeting on Thursday, May 16, 2019. The legislation is one of five major goals for the special session that kicked off on Thursday. (Photo by the Alaska Senate Majority/Twitter)

Just two hours into the special session on the Legislature’s unresolved work, legislators announced a deal on a sweeping rollback of criminal justice reform.

Efforts to negotiate on the crime bill dominated the final day of the 121-day session, but legislators came up short of hitting Wednesday’s midnight deadline with a deal in hand.

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy announced a special session to begin Thursday at 10 a.m. with an agenda that included the crime bill along with the operating budget, the capital budget, the mental health budget and legislation dealing with the next year’s education funding.

The conference committee on House Bill 49 met at noon on Thursday. It accepted the Senate version of the crime bill, which was tougher than the version passed by the House and more in line with the governor’s proposed changes, as the working document with a slate of compromises on the bill.

“I’m pleased that the House minority, majority, the Senate majority, minority came together to truly come forward with a joint proposal,” said Rep. Chuck Kopp, one of the key negotiators on the bill. “It is a stronger proposal because it is a joint proposal.”

“This was truly a bipartisan, bicameral effort. Everyone was involved. There were certainly some heated discussions, but this is a tough-on-crime bill,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who was the Senate’s minority Democrat on the conference committee. “This is an absolute repeal and replacement of Senate Bill 91.”

The bill contained changes that required both chambers to expand the power of the conference committee, which they promptly did after the conference committee’s announcement. Neither chamber will immediately hold votes on the legislation, however, as the final compromise bill has yet to be drafted.

The final financial impact of the legislation will also need to be reviewed before work wraps up on the bill. An initial review of the Senate bill estimated it would cost nearly $60 million once it was fully implemented.

The Senate adjourned to a technical session for Friday while the House broke until 3 p.m. Monday, which is when House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said a vote on the report will be planned.

The compromise

Some of the biggest changes include the retention of the pretrial services program and the controversial pretrial risk assessment tool. Senate Bill 91 put into place a tool to judge the risk a person may commit a new crime while awaiting trial, forcing judges to release low-risk inmates ahead of the trial. It was an attempt at dealing with the state’s ballooning pretrial population but ran into problems with its implementation.

While supporters of criminal justice reform pushed for tweaks to the program the anti-SB 91 legislators pushed for its wholesale repeal. The Senate bill would have stripped out the program entirely, while the House would have maintained it.

The compromise keeps the program in place but doesn’t bind the hands of judges when considering bail.

“Just to be clear, the tool will be on a list of the various things that the judge does consider but it does not have any weight or power or authority over the judges,” said Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer.

Legislators pledged to continue working on efforts to rehabilitate offenders, but changes in the bill preserve some of the such efforts from Senate Bill 91. The compromise would give offenders up to a year of credit for time spent in treatment instead of the 180 day cap in the Senate bill.

While the compromise largely sticks with the increased sentencing levels put forward in the Senate bill, it does slightly take the edge off first-time convictions. One of the concepts behind Senate Bill 91 was that lengthy first-time sentences can seriously harm the outlook of the offender’s life and push them to return to crime. Instead, the thinking is that short, tough and certain first-time punishment is more effective at changing a person’s behavior.

The bill raises the minimum sentencing for repeat felony convictions in most cases by a year and by two for the more serious penalties.

Here’s a breakdown of the different sentencing proposals:

Crime Current law House HB 49 Senate HB 49 Compromise
Class A Felony (1st) 3-6 years 4-7 years 5-8 years 4-7 years
Class A Felony (2nd) 8-13 years 9-13 years 10-14 years 10-14 years
Class A Felony (3rd) 13-20 years 14-20 years 15-20 years 15-20 years
Class B Felony (1st) 0-2 years 1-3 years 1-3 years 1-3 years
Class B Felony (2nd) 2-5 years 2-6 years 4-7 years 3-7 years
Class B Felony (3rd) 4-10 years 5-10 years 6-10 years 6-10 years
Class C Felony (1st) 0-2 years 0-2 years 0-2 years 0-2 years
Class C Felony (2nd) 1-4 years 1-4 years 2-4 years 2-4 years
Class C Felony (3rd) 2-5 years 2-5 years 3-5 years 3-5 years
Class A Misdemeanor 0-30 days 0-1 year 0-1 year 0-1 year
Class B Misdemeanor 0-10 days 0-30 days 0-90 days 0-90 days

Another important change is the addition of a 10-year look back requirement for drug offenses, which would require the Legislature to reexamine the effectiveness of the changes for drug penalties.

The newly proposed crimes of possessing vehicle theft tools as a Class A misdemeanor and the failure to use headlights as an infraction are unchanged from the Senate version of the bill.

A full breakdown of the changes can be found here.

That’s it for now

The near-resolution of the crime bill was the only issue touched on Thursday. With both the House and Senate planning breaks over the weekend, no significant progress is expected on the operating budget, capital budget, mental health budget, the dividend or education funding.

Until legislators pass a fully funded operating budget, they will no longer be able to collect their per diem payments under a new law approved last year. The payments amount to $302 per legislator per day or about $17,000 per day.

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