House members will debate Monday whether to overhaul the state’s criminal sentencing laws. Supporters say the legislation will lower the risk of offenders returning to crime, but others are concerned that the bill goes too far in reducing penalties.
Senate Bill 91 is one of the most hotly debated bills of the session. It would allow law enforcement officers to cite low level, nonviolent offenders instead of arresting them. It also would focus prison beds on more serious and violent offenders and create a re-entry program within the Department of Corrections. But the House Finance Committee scaled back some of these changes. Committee members cited concerns from some victims’ rights advocates, who say the bill isn’t tough enough on offenders.
Bill sponsor Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, said he remains hopeful the bill will become law. He emphasized the benefits of a pretrial program that would divert low-risk prisoners away from jail.
“We’re going to do risk-based assessments for the first time ever in pretrial. It’s still there,” after the committee changes, he said. “We’re going to allow them (to enter) diversion to programs for the first time ever, the way we’re doing it under a risk-based system.”
Coghill based the original bill on the recommendations of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. For example, the commission recommended raising the value of items that are stolen that require criminal charges, from $750 to $2,000. The House Finance Committee settled on raising the limit to $1,000.
But Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, was troubled by the possibility of letting thieves go because they stole less than $1,000 of valuables.
“It seems to me like we’re trying to make it so … a crook has a lighter sentence or gets off easier here, because of inflation. And I don’t like that,” Neuman said. “A crook is a crook.”
Alaska Public Defender Quinlan Steiner said that while the amended House and Senate bills would save less than the original legislation, the effects would still be positive.
“The bill, as I see it, will likely still result in significant savings that can be used to reinvest in programs that will reduce recidivism,” Steiner said.
Coghill said his original bill would have cut the state’s prison population by 21 percent, saving more than $400 million a year. He said the House Finance Committee substitute would reduce the prison population by roughly 8 to 10 percent.
The House is scheduled to debate and potentially vote on whether to pass or amend the measure on Monday. Coghill said he expects a debate over whether to require jail time for lower-level crimes. Another debate will likely focus on how much credit people in pretrial programs should receive, to reduce jail time.
Coghill said he welcomes the legislative debate over the bill.
“It just goes to show that when we’re making law, it gets down to specifics, and it’s not consensus-driven – it’s vote-driven,” he said.
The crime bill is the most significant bill left on the legislature’s agenda that’s not primarily focused on the budget.