AK Senate guts House crime bill, replaces with the governor's proposed provisions

Kenny Knutson / KTUU
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Senate Finance Committee sent crime legislation to the floor that effectively gutted most of the provisions approved by the Alaska House of Representatives and replaced them with tougher measures proposed by the governor.

The most significant change adopted by the Senate Finance Committee would be on sentencing ranges for certain drug possession offenses.

The House passed a crime bill that would make it a misdemeanor for the first two possession offenses of certain drugs and a felony for a third offense. The Senate Finance Committee initially approved a measure that would make the first of those offenses a felony.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, proposed an amendment that landed halfway between the proposals from the House and the governor. The Senate Finance Committee approved Wielechowski’s amendment unanimously.

After the committee hearing, John Skidmore, the director of the Criminal Division at the Department of Law, said “that’s a huge change and huge benefit to our state.”

With the passage of Senate Bill 91 in 2016, Skidmore described that prosecutors effectively stopped trying to charge people for drug possession as offenders wouldn’t spend time behind bars.

Since 2016, there has been a drop of 700 felony drug prosecutions every year. Property theft and vehicle theft statistics skyrocketed and there was no incentive for judges to order offenders into treatment, said Skidmore.

Suspended entry of judgment would still remain in the bill, meaning judges could order a person into treatment and onto probation and suspend their sentence up to a year.

Further violations at that time could attract a Class-C felony for offenders and up to two years behind bars.

Across the Legislature, lawmakers have spoken of the need for phase two of criminal justice reform next session, focusing on increased access to drug addiction treatment.

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, summarized the approach by saying that this session focused on developing “the stick” of tough sentencing ranges while next session there would see a need to fix “the carrot of rehabilitative services.”

House Bill 49 would also change how the pretrial risk assessment tool operates. The House passed a measure that judges “shall” use the tool while the Senate left it to the choice of the individual judge.

The Senate Finance Committee also stripped caps on technical violations of parole and left it to judges to decide how much time a person would spend behind bars.

The amended legislation was approved by the Senate Finance Committee unanimously and sent to the Senate floor for further debate.

Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, signaled on Wednesday that the Senate shouldn't change the crime bill passed by the House so much that members "can't concur."

A spokesperson for the House majority did not respond to request for comment about whether the bill was acceptable before publication.

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