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Alaska House passes crime bill: Bill would partially repeal 2016 overhaul of criminal justice system

Associated Press

JUNEAU — A state senator who has been a leader in criminal justice reform efforts in Alaska said he will recommend a conference committee on a House rewrite of a crime bill he sponsored earlier this year.

But Republican Sen. John Coghill of North Pole said Tuesday that first he hoped to have a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees to discuss the changes made by the House and the effects of those changes.

Coghill said he wants to make sure senators fully understand what they’ll be voting on. A joint hearing was scheduled for Wednesday but cancelled. The Senate Finance Committee instead scheduled a hearing for Friday.

Early Tuesday, after days of floor debate, the House passed the bill, SB 54, which was aimed at addressing concerns raised by the public and law enforcement about a sweeping criminal justice overhaul passed last year.

Rising crime rates fanned the debate, with some lawmakers seeing the overhaul as soft on crime and calling for its repeal.

But others cautioned against a rush to judgment, citing other factors, such as the state’s recession, the opioid epidemic, and the effects of budget cuts on prosecutors and law enforcement.

Some lawmakers saw the bill that passed the House as fixing flaws in the overhaul and improving public safety while others saw it as too much of a knee-jerk reaction. Some, meanwhile, didn’t think the bill went far enough in rolling back the overhaul.

The 2016 overhaul, based on recommendations from a special commission, stemmed from concerns about the state’s growing prison population and high rates of recidivism.

The commission, set up by the Legislature, recommended, among other things, limiting the use of prison for lower-level misdemeanor offenders, targeting prison space for violent and more serious offenders.

Gov. Bill Walker, in a statement Tuesday, thanked the House for its work. “I look forward to seeing the Senate concur, and to signing the bill when it reaches my desk,” he said.

Coghill said he wants clarity on what the governor meant about Senate concurrence.

“Do you mean, just get me a bill or do you want the House bill? And I think he probably meant, just get me a bill,” Coghill said.

Crime so far has dominated the special session, which began Oct. 23.

Special sessions in Alaska can last up to 30 days, and Coghill said he thinks there’s enough time left to reach agreement on the crime bill.