State Senate passes criminal justice overhaul bill

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, at a Senate Majority press availability, March 21, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, at a Senate Majority press availability, March 21, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The state Senate voted 16-2 on Saturday to pass a bill overhauling Alaska’s criminal justice system.

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The bill would divert nonviolent offenders from prison toward alternative programs. It shifts the focus of bail from people’s ability to pay to the risk they present. It also creates a re-entry program in the Department of Corrections, to assist those leaving prison to help reduce recidivism. Senate Bill 91 reduces sentence ranges and expands parole.

North Pole Republican Senator John Coghill says the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission laid the groundwork for the bill.

“If less people are coming in to jail reoffending, that’s less crime,” Coghill said. “And that’s what our aim is here. The aim here is not necessarily cost savings, but we can’t afford to do what we’re doing right now.”

“So we’re kind of bumping up against the cost and the unacceptable returns on what’s going on in Alaska.”

The Department of Corrections forecasts the bill will save a lot of money.

Ninety million dollars would be saved in the next six years by diverting people from prison, and potentially hundreds of millions in reduced social service costs, since people will be working instead of being in jail.

Law enforcement unions and some victims’ rights advocates oppose the bill. They say it jeopardizes public safety and worsens victims’ trauma.

Chugiak Republican Senator Bill Stoltze opposed the bill.

“I really think, in many aspects, this bill got too big to fail,” Stoltze said. “And it could be several bills that were dealt with in different iterations.”

But supporters pointed to research showing that similar measures in other states have reduced the chance that people will re-offend.

Bill supporter Soldotna Republican Senator Peter Micciche says the current system makes low-level offenders better at being criminals while incarcerated, rather than being reformed.

The bill would re-invest some of the savings toward social assistance programs, to help them succeed in finding work.

“What we’re tried to do is provide intervention and reinvestment while they’re inside, and hopefully have these folks ready to succeed when they’re released,” Micciche said. “And this is not the end. Although it’s a paradigm shift, we’ll be monitoring the success of the changes we’ve made and make sure it delivers the results that we expect it to see delivered.”

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill Monday, putting it on track for a vote by the full House later this week.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.