Town hall meetings in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su have blown a windstorm of criticism against the criminal justice reform program known as Senate Bill 91. In Juneau on Wednesday night, that windstorm calmed and at times even seemed to blow in the opposite direction.
As about 60 Juneau residents gathered for a town hall meeting with Juneau’s legislative delegation, the audience at Juneau-Douglas High School was divided and some offered support for SB 91.
“Don’t give up the fight for SB 91. It’s good legislation,” said Don Habeger, community coordinator for the Juneau Reentry Coalition, which is devoted to reducing the number of Alaskans who return to jail after release.
When it was signed into law last year, that was SB 91’s goal: reducing the number of Alaskans who commit new crimes after their release from jail. By reducing the number of returning inmates, the state expects to avoid the need for a new multimillion-dollar prison.
In years of research, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission found that long jail sentences are counterproductive: They make it harder for released inmates to return to normal lives. In SB 91, lawmakers took the recommendations of the commission and lowered sentences for nonviolent crimes. They also encouraged alternatives to prison.
Unfortunately for the effort behind SB 91, a drop in oil prices led to cuts in public safety funding just as the system needed new money, and before promised savings kicked in. Also, there was a surge in crime partially driven by the ongoing opioid drug abuse epidemic. The bill will not be fully implemented until next year.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve had almost a perfect storm,” said Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau, speaking to the town hall audience.
Many Alaskans, particularly in Anchorage (which has been hit particularly hard by a surge in auto theft) have called for revisions to SB 91 or its outright repeal.
Gov. Bill Walker is one of those people. The Alaska Legislature is scheduled to convene in Juneau for a special session starting Oct. 23, and Walker has placed Senate Bill 54 — a package of revisions to SB 91 — on the agenda alongside a tax bill.
Former Juneau Police Department Officer Ed Kalwara stood at Wednesday’s town hall and said SB 91 isn’t working.
“What that has done is put criminals on our streets that weren’t there before,” he said. “It affects the health and welfare of our community. … It’s not a good thing to happen.”
SB 54, which would revise SB 91, has passed the Alaska Senate on a 19-1 vote earlier this year. (Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, voted in favor.)
Because the Senate has already voiced its approval of SB 54, the measure will start in the House when it comes up during the special session.
In the regular session earlier this year, House leaders referred the bill to three committees for consideration. That’s a level of vetting normally reserved for constitutional amendments, and if an ordinary bill is sent to that many committees, it usually means the death of the bill. There typically isn’t enough time for the Legislature to devote that much time to a single item.
On Wednesday, Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, said that when the Legislature starts its special session, SB 54 won’t go to three committees, and as one of only two items on the agenda of the 30-day session, it will not lack for attention.
“It should be plenty of time, and it will not have the same committee referrals as it did when we left,” he said. “I do anticipate we will have the ability to address that one.
Gun control raised
As Egan, Parish and Kito asked for questions Wednesday night, the first topic wasn’t SB 91: It was gun control.
A man in the audience — he left before the Empire could get his name — asked whether the Legislature will consider banning or limiting bump stocks, the mechanical device used by Las Vegas mass shooter Stephen Paddock to fire his semiautomatic rifles with almost the rapidity of a fully automatic rifle.
“It’s not going to happen in the state of Alaska. There are more valuable places to be putting our energy,” Parish responded, but another woman also spoke up in support of the idea.
To see how remarkable that request is, look at the records of the Alaska Legislature. In the past 25 years, according to the legislative database BASIS, the Legislature has considered 140 bills or resolutions that contain references to firearms. According to the Empire’s cursory reading of those bills, not a single one mentions restricting firearms or even firearm components like bump stocks.
Even if the Legislature were to consider restricting bump stocks, it might to surmount a constitutional challenge. In 1994, Alaskans voted by a 73-27 margin to amend the state constitution to declare that “the individual right to keep and bear arms shall not be denied or infringed by the state or a political subdivision of the state.”
The second woman who spoke said she would be willing to give up her firearms if it meant guaranteeing there would be no more mass shootings. Her sister was at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas on the night of the shooting.
“I’ll give you my weapons if you can help protect another family from the fear that we went through,” she said.
Parish asked the audience to raise their hands if they agreed with the woman. Slightly more than half did.
He then asked those who disagreed with her to raise their hands. Slightly less than half did, but it was very nearly 50/50.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.