Alaska House passes revision to criminal justice law

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman speaks in favor of Senate Bill 54. The measures revises last year's controversial criminal justice law. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman speaks in favor of Senate Bill 54. The measures revises last year’s controversial criminal justice law. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

The Alaska House passed a bill early Tuesday morning that revises last year’s overhaul of the state’s criminal sentencing laws. After a series of contentious votes on amendments, 32 House members voted for Senate Bill 54, while eight voted against it.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman said the bill makes improvements to last year’s Senate Bill 91.

“I suggest to all of you that Senate Bill 91 has never been the bogeyman,” Claman said. “We know that longer and longer sentences are not making Alaska safer.”

SB 54 increases penalties for class C felonies and petty thefts, as well as for those who violate the conditions of their release.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Chuck Kopp said the bill is part of a criminal justice reform effort that allows people to redeem themselves.

“The most beautiful stories that are ever told among humankind are always stories of redemption,” Kopp said. “The orphan finding a family. The lost being found. The broken life restored. A wounded heart healed. Senate Bill 54 is very aggressive on crime, but it does not shut the door on a man and a woman’s life finding a way back.”

The House passed 10 amendments to the bill over three days of debate, while defeating 25 others. Six of the passed amendments toughen penalties for some offenses.

Some representatives said the amendments didn’t go far enough to restore penalties that were in place before the Legislature passed SB 91 last year.

Wasilla Republican Rep. David Eastman was one of six Matanuska-Susitna Borough Republicans who voted against SB 54.

“The message of SB 54 that I see is – it can be summed up in three words: We — as a state — love criminals,” Eastman said.

Two Democrats – Sam Kito III of Juneau and David Guttenberg of Fairbanks – also voted against the bill. They said it repealed too much of SB 91.

If the Senate doesn’t agree to the changes the House made to the bill, the two chambers could form a conference committee to try to resolve their differences.

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