Prospects diminish for criminal justice overhaul

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, right, chats with a colleague after a state Senate floor session, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Juneau, Alaska. Coghill championed a massive criminal justice overhaul bill this session but its prospects for passing seem increasingly slim as lawmakers continue to amend and add new provisions to the bill. (AP Photo/Rashah McChesney)

JUNEAU — An Alaska lawmaker’s efforts to halt the rapid growth of the state’s prison population may not come to fruition.

 

When it was introduced, North Pole Sen. John Coghill’s bill reduced sentences, put higher thresholds in place for property crimes and inserted a presumption of citation instead of arrest for many misdemeanors. Now, it also specifies who can serve on the state’s Violent Crimes Compensation Board, tweaks the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws and requires that Alaska’s Criminal Justice Commission draft a report on using bonds to reduce recidivism.

Alaska’s prison population grew three times faster than the resident population over the last decade, according to an Alaska Criminal Justice Commission Report that recommended ways to reduce the number of prisoners in state care by 21 percent over the next decade and ultimately save the state $424 million.

But as the bill has changed shape during its journey through the legislature, many of those recommendations, like a reduction in sentence for sex offenders who complete treatment programs in jail, have been changed or stripped from the bill entirely.

Coghill said the latest version of his bill generally adheres to the framework of getting Alaskans out of jail and into treatment programs, thus saving the state money and reducing recidivism rates. But as lawmakers continue to stack previously stalled bills onto his, its passage becomes less likely this year, he said.

“I can see why people want it because they see a vehicle that looks like it might actually go and tack it on,” Coghill said. “It slows it down to where we might not be able to get things done this session because it complicates it so much.”

Of particular concern to Coghill was a controversial measure that would have provided state medical benefits for surviving family members of firefighters or law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Coghill said it had financial consequences that had yet to be determined.

House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, withdrew the bill after it stalled in committee.

It was offered as an amendment to the bill but House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski ruled out of order late Wednesday afternoon.

Regardless of whether that’s added, Millett said she no longer supported the crime bill in its current form. She said the bill has been amended without being thoroughly vetted.

“I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the speed at which the crime bill has gone through the process,” she said. “We’re looking at the biggest fundamental change we’ve had to criminal justice since statehood and, frankly, we’re doing it on the fly.”

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