Senate committee goes further than House in repealing controversial crime law

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate floor session, March 13, 2019.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, speaks during a Senate floor session on March 13. On Sunday, Wielechowski successfully proposed an amendment to House Bill 49 that would keep first-time drug possession offenses as misdemeanors. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

A criminal justice bill advancing in the Alaska Senate would go further than the House version in repealing parts of a controversial three-year-old law.

The Senate Finance Committee passed House Bill 49 on Sunday after adding elements of a criminal justice package proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

The Senate bill would make second-time drug possession offenses into felony crimes.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski successfully proposed an amendment that would keep first-time drug possession offenses as misdemeanors. But they would be punishable by up to a year in jail.

Wielechowski said this will allow some first-time offenders to keep their jobs.

“This is an attempt to try to find a middle ground and say, ‘One time.’ You make one mistake, we’re going to say, ‘You can go to jail for up to 365 days.’ And then the second time is a felony,” Wielechowski said. “I think that’s a fair result.”

Under the 2016 law known as Senate Bill 91, first- and second-time drug possession charges are misdemeanors that do not lead to jail time.

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, questions Assistant Attorney General William Milks in the Senate Judiciary Committee in Juneau on March 22, 2019. Milks was testifying on Senate Bills 23 and 24, which would compensate Alaskans for past cuts to the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla.(Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Wasilla Republican Sen. Mike Shower supports repealing many of the elements of SB 91. He voted for Wielechowski’s amendment. He said the bill gives prosecutors more tools.

“We can always change it,” Shower said. “If we find it’s not working, we can modify it again and go back harder.”

The Senate bill also would repeal a legal defense that spouses can use against charges of sexual assault of a spouse who is incapacitated.

The entire Senate could vote on the bill as soon as Monday. The legislative session is scheduled to end on Wednesday.

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