As anger over crime boils over, Alaska lawmakers weigh changes to law

Former Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson discusses crime with residents at City Hall in January. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Alaska lawmakers will face a challenge when they weigh what to do about the state’s criminal justice laws later this month: how to balance a body of research that supports changes they made last year, with the outrage about the current rise in crime.

At a Sept. 25 town hall meeting in Anchorage called by Republican Rep. Charisse Millett, residents called for the death penalty; letting people die from overdoses; and turning an island into an Escape From New York-style prison. While the comments ranged far from the Legislature’s policy debate over crime, they show the level of passion in the city that lawmakers are hearing.

The focus of the policy debate is legislation passed year, Senate Bill 91.  It’s a law that allowed some low-risk offenders to avoid jail time. It also changed sentencing, bail and probation with the goal of reducing the number of repeat offenders. In addition, it funds drug treatment.

Most categories of serious crime have risen in Alaska over the past five years. University of Alaska Anchorage Associate Professor Brad Myrstol has looked at whether property crime is related to last year’s law. In a word, his answer is: no.

Myrstol noted there hasn’t been much time to study the law’s effects.

“I can’t say that (no) universally, in terms of both property and violent crimes, but I see no evidence in the trend data that I’ve looked at that would indicate the recent upticks in crime are attributable to the passage of SB91,” he said.

There are other potential factors, like the opioid addiction epidemic, rising unemployment and a shrinking police forces.

Millett described what she sees as one result of the law — police officers facing limits in making arrests.

“We’ve taken a tool away from them, so instead of now arresting someone and doing a physical arrest and taking them down to the jail and booking them, they’re arresting them by ticket, or by citation and giving them a summons to appear in court,” she said.

The law did downgrade drug possession from being a felony to a misdemeanor, so it no longer leads to arrests. But for 142 other types of class C felonies, the law left arrests to officers’ discretion.

Myrstol said the approach to sentencing under the new law can be difficult for police officers and residents who see jail time as the primary way to hold criminals accountable.

“We’re talking generations of police officers were trained – and their everyday practice is – putting people in handcuffs, taking them to the jail and booking them,” Myrstol said. “And now, for certain offenses, it’s not that. And that’s a dramatic change in practice.”

Myrstol said the criminal justice system has multiple goals, including reducing recidivism by shifting away from jail time and toward probation and treatment. That conflicts with another goal: giving people a sense of retribution.

“For the past generation, the imprisonment binge that we’ve been on hasn’t been particularly effective, and in many instances may even have been counterproductive to our objectives of fostering public safety and community well-being,” he said.

Shawn Williams owns an Anchorage DJ business, Five Star Entertainment. He’s helped organize other business owners to ask lawmakers to repeal Senate Bill 91.

“Between burglaries and theft being a daily occurrence, it got a little disheartening,” Williams said.

He expressed doubt over the social science used to write the law.

“Most people realize you can make data say what you want it to say,” he said.

Others in Anchorage want to see parts of the new law replaced, but not all of it.

City Assemblyman Eric Croft has worked as a municipal prosecutor. He said he supports the idea behind the criminal justice reform, but questioned its execution.

“This bill … took the savings upfront and back-loaded or didn’t fund at all the treatment and probation,” he said.

Susanne DiPietro worked with the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission as it made the recommendations that helped shape Senate Bill 91. Like Croft, DiPietro said it would have been better to increase drug treatment before the law. But she said the law creates a framework to fund treatment.

“Before SB 91, there was no promise or plan or schedule for investment in treatment,” she said. “And post-SB 91, we have … a framework of a commitment for six years out of reinvestment.”

She noted the law still isn’t fully implemented. Parts of Senate Bill 91 went into effect in July 2016, other parts went into effect in January and the rest won’t go into effect until this coming January.

“We really need to stop and take a small pause and analyze the situation and come up with approaches that will work for the problems that we have, and we just don’t have the resources to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” she said.

Gov. Bill Walker has asked the Legislature to pass a bill that would partially reverse some of the changes made last year, Senate Bill 54. A large change would be to Class C felonies. Before last year, these crimes would lead to jail terms of up to two years, plus up to 10 years of probation. Senate Bill 91 changed that to up to five years of probation and up to 18 months of jail time if probation was violated.

The bill that Walker placed on the agenda for the Legislature’s special session would reintroduce jail sentences for C felonies, of up to one year. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission recommended shorter jail terms of up to 90 days.

House finance subcommittees will hear testimony Thursday afternoon regarding the crime bill.

Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated a reduction in penalties for Class C felonies enacted by Senate Bill 91. The bill made a Class C felony punishable with up to five years of probation and 18 months of jail time if probation was violated — not only 18 months of probation.

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