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As special session starts, House puts criminal justice bill on fast track

Public testimony on Senate Bill 54 continues at 6 p.m. tonight

It started slowly, but the fourth special session of the 30th Alaska Legislature appeared to be on a fast track by the end of its first day.

 

Lawmakers in the House moved rapidly to advance a measure that aims to roll back a portion of last year’s criminal justice reform known Senate Bill 91.

In a 25-12 vote, the House advanced Senate Bill 54 to the House Judiciary Committee, which began taking public comment before the day ended.

Public comment on SB 54 will continue at 6 p.m. tonight in the Capitol.

“I think there’s an emphasis by the Legislature on getting SB 54 heard and passed as swiftly as we reasonably can,” Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, told the Empire.

As signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016, SB 91 encouraged alternatives to jail — probation, electronic monitoring and drug treatment, for example — for nonviolent crime. The bill was intended to reduce the number of Alaskans who return to jail after being released once. In turn, that would reduce the chance that the state will need to build another prison, saving millions.

SB 91 will not be fully implemented until next year, but Alaskans, particularly in Southcentral, say it has contributed to a surge in property crime. In a series of town hall meetings organized by lawmakers, Southcentral residents have clamored for passage of SB 54 or a complete repeal of SB 91.

In Juneau, the reaction to SB 54 has been mixed.

Earlier this year, Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole and the author of SB 91, introduced SB 54 to revise SB 91. Those revisions were recommended by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which spent years crafting guidelines that formed the backbone of SB 91.

The Alaska Senate approved SB 54 in a 19-1 vote earlier this year, but the House did not seriously consider it during the regular session. Gov. Bill Walker, who now backs SB 54, added the bill to a previously planned budgetary special session.

In a series of procedural votes Monday, the House and Senate agreed to take up the bill from where they left off.

That leaves the House to do most of the work in the first week of the special session. With the House State Affairs Committee skipped by Monday’s vote, that leaves the House Judiciary Committee and the House Finance Committee as the lone hurdles before a vote of the full House.

Members of the House Republican Minority objected to putting the bill on a fast track and called for more discussion about the right way to address the statewide surge in property crime.

“What’s the rush?” asked Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, who called for more deliberation.

Not all members of the Republican minority agreed with the take-it-slow approach, however, and several joined the House Coalition Majority in advancing the bill.

The judiciary committee took invited testimony and public testimony Monday night, and lawmakers were told that any amendments to the bill must be finished by 5 p.m. tonight, a sign the bill will move from the judiciary committee quickly.

Another sign: The House Finance Committee has scheduled meetings in the second half of the week, which would allow it to hear the bill quickly.

If the House amends the bill, as expected, the Senate will be asked to confirm those changes before the measure becomes law.

Could the bill pass through the Legislature in two weeks of work?

“I think that’s a reasonable guess, but I think there’s a lot of differing viewpoints on the bill as it relates to SB 91. It is going to take some time to work,” Edgmon said.

Senate President Pete Kelly said the two-week estimate is a “reasonable expectation,” and while most senators will return to Anchorage while the House considers SB 54, he will remain in Juneau to confer with Edgmon and keep the Senate in session.


• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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