Dear Friends and Neighbors,
I have several pieces of news to report.
Alaska’s Criminal Code & Criminal Justice Reform
Many Alaskans have railed recently against rising crime and the 2016 criminal justice reform bill, SB91. I, too, am very concerned about the increase in crime—especially the violent variety, but also property violations—and I’ll be voting in this month’s special session to do something about it.
I voted against SB91, and, during floor debate, offered 13 amendments to maintain penalties. My two years as a prosecutor gave me a unique insight into our criminal law and how it “works” in the real world. I saw the issues this bill could (and, some argue, did) cause.
That crime in Alaska—especially in Anchorage—has increased recently seems indisputable. The stats are spelled out in the just-published Uniform Crime Report. Although the uptick began prior to SB91’s passage, sharper increases correlate with its enactment (this is a debated point, but the law did go into effect 15 months ago). We’ve been hearing reports of overconfident criminals yelling, “You can’t do anything to me” as they shoplift, and repeat offenders who now feel safe to continue their criminal lifestyle. People are scared. And rightly so: police are spread thin; the courts have a backlog. Criminologists tell us not to assume a cause-effect link between SB91 and increasing crime, but police, prosecutors, the media, and everyday Alaskans have connected those dots. Some judges…I have heard, indirectly, of at least 4 or 5… have complained that SB91 ties their hands.
All these Alaskans can’t be wrong. There is a link between SB91 and our crime increase, though other factors likely also contribute to the uptick: Alaska’s recession, severe state budget cuts, our opioid epidemic, decimated and demoralized police agencies.
On Thursday, October 5, my caucus held subcommittee hearings and heard about reductions to the Department of Law, the Alaska Courts, the Department of Public Safety (Troopers), the Department of Administration, and the Department of Corrections totaling about $94 million. We also heard that our Anchorage state prosecutors are down 6 prosecutors from their highest point. We need to fix this situation and fix it very soon! Noteworthy, these cuts help explain our desperate need for a fiscal plan, something that the Senate has resisted at every turn.
Some legislators—and many citizens—have called for a total repeal of SB 91. A bill the Senate passed, SB54, would adopt the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission’s January 2017 recommendations by stiffening some—but not all—of SB91’s sentence softening.
I haven’t decided what course is best, though have devoted, and will continue to devote, a great deal of time and effort to studying the issue and debating it with other legislators (of all parties). Though outright SB91 repeal sounds appealing, that’s a meat axe approach where a scalpel might be needed.
Note also that repealing SB91 would actually weaken murder sentences, so repealing that bill is not a clean fix. Some of the pre-trial interventions SB91 envisioned could actually help, and the Department of Corrections is already training 60 pre-trial officers to implement a program starting in January. The adage about turning a supertanker around applies here: Fixing—really fixing—Alaska’s criminal justice system, now that some of the “reforms” are midstream, is going to be a complex task. The question for me is this: Is it worth the pain that citizens will go through while waiting for reforms to take effect, and will those reforms actually work?
I’ve listened and/or spoken about crime recently at Rogers Park and Tudor Area community councils, at a public meeting at Abbott Loop School, at a meeting of business leaders, at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors meeting, at Anchorage Assembly meetings and budget subcommittee meetings, as well as engaging with the Department of Law and many of my legislative colleagues. My office has been present at every meeting we can find on this topic. I’m all over this issue.
We’ve been dismayed to see extent to which the system is failing both our residents and our criminals. Our residents deserve to feel safe, while our criminals should be helped, if possible. What’s worse, vigilantism—or talk of it—is on the rise. Police advise strongly against taking matters into your own hands. Vigilantes are not immune to prosecution, as with any other violent offender.
Fairbanks Forum Draws a Crowd
Three House Majority Coalition members and I spoke at a town hall-style public meeting in Fairbanks this past weekend, discussing crime, Alaska’s revenue crisis, natural resources, Denali wolves, fisheries habitat, and other topics. Speakers included Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, Rep. Adam Wool of Fairbanks (our host), and Governor Walker’s Management & Budget Director, Ms. Pat Pitney.
I told the crowd of about 60 people that the legislature can stiffen penalties, but we also must provide sufficient funding to put Troopers on roads, cops on beats, and prosecutors in courtrooms. Already, cuts to state prosecutors have resulted in around 7,000 fewer prosecutions. Dept. of Law, Criminal Div. general fund funding has dropped from $30.5 million in fiscal year 2014 to $27.1 million in the current fiscal year.
As members of the House Majority, Reps. Edgmon, Wool, Stutes, and I are advocating for a comprehensive fiscal plan that will allow Alaska to adequately fund public safety, education, health, and other vital state functions. Governor Walker and his staff, such as Director Pitney, are also pushing for fiscal fixes that provide valuable services without draining our savings.
While my primary concern is my own district, it’s good to hear from people elsewhere, and for residents of other Alaska communities to hear from legislators across the state.
Swimming Against the Current
Last week, Trustees for Alaska represented Stand for Salmon at Alaska’s Superior Court. I attended the oral argument. Trustees argued to uphold a ballot that will allow the strengthening of regulations to protect fish habitat.
Last month, Trustees filed a lawsuit after Lt. Gov. Mallot rejected the ballot measure, stating that this initiative would thwart the legislature’s control over resource use/allocation. The judge ruled in favor of Trustees/Stand for Salmon, stating that the ballot allows ADF&G discretion when issuing permits, and refrains from appropriating resources.
You can read their press release here: http://www.trustees.org/alaskas-fish-get-big-win-court/. All this is just in time….because…
…Pebble Forges Ahead
The Pebble Partnership made an announcement late last week that it has scaled back its plans for the controversial Pebble mine. Their reasoning for this was to get as close to the EPA recommendations as possible (though they’re still more expansive than Obama’s EPA had wanted). Proponents are saying that this mine will be a safe revenue-generator for the state, but please note that mining only brings in about $100 million per year to the state’s coffers. (this may sound like a lot, but consider that at its height, we brought in $9,000 million from oil production!)
This is a pittance for a government that needs 40 times that amount to pay its bills. Critics are saying that this toned-down plan is a clever ploy to get their permits in place and then expand operations in the future. The main question we’re asking at the moment is: Is it worth the risk? Do we risk our salmon and our pristine habitats for a little bit of revenue? Do we trust that this plan isn’t merely a foot in the door to a much larger and more destructive project? For me, it’s not a tough call. See Alaska Public Media for more on this story.
To have your voice heard on this issue, there’s still time! The 90-day comment period remains open until October 17. Click herefor instructions on how to comment.
This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to join a handful of local Denali Borough citizens at the Stampede trail, along with our Montana-based guest, Zack Strong, from the Natural Resources Defense Council. We were exploring the area constituting the “wolf buffer” zone that would be established adjacent to Denali National Park if my bill, HB105, passes the Senate. If you would like to support and/or be a part of this work, please contact me. This bill will be a tough sell for the Senate, but I believe it’s an important step in protecting our resources for non-consumptive users.
In Other News…
Canvassing Your Neighborhood!
To best represent you in the legislature, I should know you, visit you at home, meet your kids, and hear what you think about Alaska’s problems and promises. You can attend my town hall meeting (see below), speak to me at your community council, email me, or call me—or I can come to you. And I do.
The past couple months, I’ve been walking door-to-door. So far, I’ve covered the South College Gate neighborhood. I’m still holding out hope to get through the Campbell Park neighborhood, but the next special session (in Juneau) is impending. But keep an eye out for me – I hope to see you soon.
Upcoming Town Hall Meeting
Face-to-face interaction between constituents and legislators promotes responsive government. I work for you, and I always want to hear—and respond to—your suggestions, questions, comments and criticisms. You can email or phone me anytime, AND you can discuss your concerns in person with me, Senator Berta Gardner, and Rep. Harriet Drummond Monday, October 16 in a town hall-style meeting at Steller Secondary School, from 5-7 p.m. Stellar is on Blueberry Road between Fireweed and Northern Lights, just west of C Street. Mark your calen…smart phones! See you at Steller.
Confluence Meeting on the Alaskan Outdoor Recreation Industry
Levitation 49 hosted a summit (Confluence) in Valdez this past month to discuss outdoor recreation in our great and expansive state. There were representatives from many stakeholder groups from across the state who brought their comments, concerns, and ideas to the table…so much so that Levitation 49 is hosting a recap meeting in Anchorage in November! For those who would like to attend, the meeting is scheduled for November 28th from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Keep an eye out on their website for the venue: http://www.levitation49.org/confluence-2017/.
If you have a topic or event that you would like to see in my next newsletter, feel free to get in touch with me or my staff. Please make note that my office will be based in Anchorage until January.
And as always, please call or email with any thoughts, ideas, or concerns.
I Answer to You!