Showdown brewing between the House, the Governor, and the Senate on crime

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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — A showdown over crime legislation is brewing in the state capitol, with the Senate Majority and the governor's office on one side and the House Majority on the other, at odds over how best to improve public safety in Alaska.

Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, highlighted the Senate Majority's stance in an interview with KTUU Monday morning.

“Correcting the crime situation facing the state is the number one priority for the Senate,” Giessel said.

The governor’s four crime bills are moving to the Senate Finance Committee for review, analysis and debate. If the bills are moved out of the committee by a vote, they'll head to the Senate floor for more debate, amendments, and ultimately a vote of the full Senate.

The bills focus on changing sentencing ranges, making possession of some controlled substances a felony, changing procedures for probation and parole, and closing the so-called Schneider loophole.

“I think they’re such a priority that if we don’t complete the work on these crime bills, the governor would be probably justified in calling us back into special session to finish the work,” Giessel said.

But how statutory changes are made by the Legislature to tackle crime is dividing the House and Senate.

House Judiciary Committee co-chair Rep. Matt Claman. D-Anchorage, is considering moving an alternative omnibus crime package forward that would take some elements from the governor’s crime bills but not make the same wholesale changes.

He said the approach should be finding areas where lawmakers agree “and work on a multi-year plan for those that we don’t.”

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 54 in 2017 and House Bill 312 in 2018 that reformed many of Senate Bill 91’s more controversial elements. Despite that, members of the Senate Majority think that more needs to be done.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, suggested that effort would be successful this year due to the makeup of the Legislature and having Gov. Mike Dunleavy in the governor's office.

“I think now we have a majority and a governor, who is in agreement that SB 91, many facets were not working, we need to address it for the sake of Alaskans,” Hughes said, adding that she hoped the Legislature would be called back to reconsider the governor’s proposals if they were stripped out by the House.

Hughes, who voted for SB 91 as a member of the House in 2016, said her focus was on “justice for all” for the victim of crimes in particular, and ensuring that offenders have options when they went into the corrections system so they come out in better shape than when they went in.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said tweaks are needed to reform criminal justice but he believed Dunleavy was taking the wrong approach.

“The governor’s proposal is to slam the door as hard as he can because he’s angry, and that’s fine that he’s angry, but you don’t pass laws ‘cause you’re mad,” Kiehl said. “You need to pass laws that make Alaskans safer and use the money wisely.”

Kiehl criticized a lack of resources for drug and alcohol treatment in the governor’s crime bills.

“That means Alaskans are no safer than they were yesterday,” he said.

In response, Giessel pointed to a grant awarded to the Department of Health and Social Services to tackle the opioid epidemic and separate legislation that would provide more clinicians to help in behavioral health.

Hughes said two of the governor’s crime bills also contained fiscal notes that could direct more money to the Department of Corrections for more drug and alcohol treatment.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is waiting for a “wish list” from the Department of Corrections about what programs could be expanded but they likely wouldn’t be implemented until 2020 and beyond.

Hughes also described that the administration was seriously looking into a proposal to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center which she said was “ideally located” for some treatment options.

According to Sarah Gallagher, a spokesperson for DOC, it would cost between $10 and $21 million to reopen the facility “depending on level of security: minimum, medium or both.”

The need to use Alaska’s resources to tackle crime effectively is a sentiment being strongly expressed by Claman, who questioned the logic behind the $40 million annual price tag attached to one of the governor’s crime bills.

Claman said more prosecutors, police and troopers should be the priority in spending and pointed to recent success by Anchorage police in tackling vehicle thefts.

On the the need to spend more money to tackle crime, Giessel agrees there are no free lunches.

“We’re prepared to pay for these things, we believe Alaskans want to pay for those things,” she said.