Gov. Bill Walker will ask legislators to toughen the state’s penalties for some minor crimes when the Alaska Legislature convenes for a special session next month.
In a press conference held Friday in Anchorage, Walker said he will place Senate Bill 54 onto the special session agenda alongside an as-yet-unidentified state revenue measure. SB 54, proposed by Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, would reverse some of the portions of Senate Bill 91, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill passed by the Legislature in 2016.
SB 54 passed the Senate in a 19-1 vote earlier this year but failed to pass the House before legislators left Juneau.
Walker’s move comes a week after the release of the 2016 Uniform Crime Report for Alaska. According to the report, the state’s total crime rate jumped from 3,571 crimes per 100,000 Alaska residents in 2015 to 4,177 crimes per 100,000 residents in 2016, according to the report. Increases were highest in property crimes.
“Clearly, the crime report shows this isn’t something we can wait until next year,” Walker said.
It isn’t clear that SB 54, even if it passes, will do anything to reduce the criminal surge that began before the full implementation of the bill it is intended to fix.
“(Senate Bill) 54 is not the cure-all, but it is a piece we absolutely need to put some of the tools back that the prosecutors need and the justice system needs,” Walker said.
The Alaska Legislature was told earlier this year that SB 54 may cost the state as much as $4.3 million more per year, though the exact figure is uncertain.
Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said during Friday’s press conference that there is “anecdotal evidence” from testimony to the Alaska Legislature that property crimes are more common at least in part because SB 91 relaxed penalties for theft.
SB 54 would boost the maximum penalty for fourth-degree theft to 10 days for a third offense, five days for a second offense, and suspended time for a first offense.
It would also allow jail time for people who violate their conditions of release from jail, as when they commit another crime while awaiting trial.
“These are minor tweaks to SB 91,” Lindemuth said.
At the same time, Walker added, “If you’re the victim, it’s not so low-level. We are doing this because we believe this will make a significant difference. I can’t stand here and guarantee that, but if we stand here and do nothing, nothing will happen. It will continue to get worse.”
The Alaska Legislature is expected to convene in Juneau in late October. Alongside SB 54 will be a revenue measure intended to address Alaska’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit. Walker has not yet published an official proclamation indicating the special session agenda. Under the Alaska Constitution, he must give lawmakers 30 days’ notice before calling them into a special session that doesn’t immediately follow a previous session.
SB 54 has already passed the Senate and awaits a hearing in the House State Affairs Committee. In the days preceding Walker’s announcement, members of the coalition House Majority had been sharing posts on social media attributing the rise in crime to a lack of funding for prosecutors.
The House Majority has previously encouraged new taxes as a means to increase police funding.
In a statement after Walker’s announcement, Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon said public safety is a priority, but budget fixes must come first.
“On the one hand, our scarce resources and criminal justice policies need to focus on keeping dangerous criminals off the street. On the other hand, the Legislature must also act on our long term fiscal situation this fall. Cuts to prosecutors, State Troopers, substance abuse treatment, and local law enforcement all contribute to crime rates,” he said. “If we want to reverse those cuts, or invest in combating drivers of crime like the opioid epidemic and ongoing recession, we must fix our fiscal footing first.”
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