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Saturday and Monday Crime Bill Public Testimony:
How, When, and Where to Testify
After four days in the House Judiciary Committee, the bill to strengthen criminal penalties where prior law left them arguably (in my view) too soft has passed, and is now being heard by the House Finance Committee. I am on that committee, and serve as Vice Chair.
The public will be given a chance to provide input through public testimony Saturday afternoon and Monday evening. Or, of course, you can e-mail me or other members of the Legislature. You can find legislator contact information at http://akleg.gov/house.php.
At the outset, I would note that with budget cuts – which sound great on paper – prior legislative majorities have cut so many prosecutors that, because of caseloads, criminal prosecutions are being declined at higher and higher rates.
That is unfortunately a fact, and criminals are going free just based on budget cuts and decisions by prosecutors that they don’t have the staff to prosecute all criminals referred by police for prosecution.
We need more prosecutors so prosecutions aren’t declined, and we need more police so we have law enforcement officers assigned to our neighborhoods to protect us.
I am proud I added $8 million in funds to the budget this year – in an amendment I wrote and gained co-sponsors for – to allow communities to hire more police officers.
I have also voted to add needed prosecutors.
Main Issues Being Debated: A Summary of the Law and Senate Bill 54
Here is a summary of Senate Bill 54 and the changes to it that are being contemplated so far. My hope is that you can understand the issues as well as possible, to then provide your ideas for any needed changes, or your support for the bill as it is written.
There is a lot of misinformation about this law out there – as this bill has become a political football by radio shock jocks and campaign folks, but has also raised legitimate concerns from members of the public.
Senate Bill 54 seeks to fix problems with Senate Bill 91 passed last year. Let’s myth-bust a little. There has been confusion among those fortunate enough not to practice law for a living (I began my legal career as a State Supreme Court Law Clerk and an Assistant Attorney General on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill case against Exxon and Alyeska). I’d say some politicians and campaign groups and radio shock jocks with political motivations have been misleading folks, and promoting their political agendas and candidates above the truth. I know, shocking.
Here are a few facts you might want to know so you can testify with knowledge about what is in the law, and what might need to be fixed.
Theft, Home Burglaries, and Robberies Are Not the Same Thing
SB 54 amends SB 91 and reinstates felony jail time for first-time felony shoplifting and felony theft. As with all crimes, repeat offenders will continue to get longer jail sentences.
Contrary to misstatements by some politicians and radio shock jocks, the more serious crimes of home burglary and robbery (theft while endangering or threatening a theft victim) have always carried jail time and remain serious, higher sentence Class B felonies. Some have misled the public that first-time or repeat home burglaries and robberies were subject to the no jail time provisions of prior law, and that is false.
SB 54 adds back jail time for repeat misdemeanor theft and shoplifting (the stealing of lower value items), which was a problem under prior law and, I believe, helped make shoplifting and theft difficult to prosecute. Again, if those thefts involved breaking into a home or threatening or hurting a person, then they are and have been jailable Class B felony burglaries and robberies.
It’s a casualty of politics that people are being told burglaries and robberies get you a pass on jail time.
Murder, Sexual Assault, and Other Crimes
The 2016 law, SB 91, increased jail time for murders and left sex crime sentences (with one exception) substantial and unchanged. The law left significant jail time for violent crime and drug dealing, but provided more probation, and supervision and treatment for drug use, as opposed to drug dealing crimes.
The goal of SB 91 was to follow the evidence that hauling minor first-time nonviolent, non-drug dealing offenders into jail makes them criminals when they come out of jail, and makes us less safe. So, fixes are needed, but myths aren’t helpful.
Rape is and has been punished under Alaska law with very high jail sentences, and that remains the case.
Much longer sentences can be imposed if there are what the law calls aggravating factors. The 30 or so aggravating factors include crimes committed with violence, weapons, and/or threats, and crimes committed with other conduct that the community would consider the most serious and condemnable.
Under SB 54, age difference sexual crimes are all punishable by jail time.
A first time felony offender “touching” a minor through clothing, or without clothing, becomes jailable for up to a year (more jail time if there are aggravating circumstances like physical injury, cruelty, use of a weapon, where the victim is vulnerable). Repeat crimes come with much longer jail sentences.
These “touching” crimes, if forced on a minor without consent, will bring higher jail sentences, and also be charged as criminal assault. That has been the case, and will continue to be the case.
Basically, SB 54 looked at those areas where criminal sentences were too short, or non-existent, and, in my view, fixed them.
Prior law did not provide for lax sentences on violent crime, burglary, drug dealing, rape or murder. It did go too far on the crimes I mentioned, where jail time has been returned.
And the law remains that drug and alcoholism treatment, and strict probation, will be used to recognize the reality that 95% of all criminals leave jail at some point. It is better to try to make them productive, non-criminal members of society when they leave jail after their sentence than to just do what used to be done – release them in a manner, without adequate safeguards, such that they will likely just become criminals again and threaten public safety.
There are two upcoming opportunities in the House Finance Committee to testify on SB 54: this Saturday from 11 am-5 pm, and Monday from 5-9 pm. The best way to testify is by going to your local Legislative Information Office (LIO), where the staff can connect you to the meeting. For folks in District 20, that’s the Anchorage LIO at 1500 W. Benson Blvd (99503). If you cannot make it in person to the LIO, you can call the Juneau LIO at 465-4648 to request a direct call-in line. The direct call-in lines are very limited and are often needed for rural callers from around the state, so if it’s at all possible to attend the LIO in person, that is the best way to testify.
As always, call or email if you have any questions. I hope you are doing well.