After taking an aggressive posture towards crime during his first State of the State address, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy (R-Alaska) offered a more in depth look at his plans to follow through during a press availability Wednesday morning. Flanked by Department of Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, Dunleavy introduced a package of bills aimed at making good on his campaign promise to “Make Alaska Safe Again” by repealing and replacing Senate Bill 91, the criminal justice reform bill passed in 2016 by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Bill Walker (I-Alaska).
“The number one priority for this administration is public safety. It’s really the number one priority for all Alaskans. It’s the number one job for any governor of any state,” Dunleavy told a room of reporters in Juneau. “We’re going to have a comprehensive public safety package that will take some time to unfold and we’re going to begin that process today.”
The legislation comes in the form of four bills, covering sex offenses, the classification of crimes and sentencing, pretrial and bail, and probation and parole.
Clarkson described the rise in crime in Alaska over the past five years as “shocking.” From 2013 (three years before SB91’s passage) to 2017 (just one year subsequent), overall crime rose 26 percent, according to the 2017 Uniform Crime Reporting Program Annual Report. Violent crime offenses rose 35 percent and property crime rose 23 percent. “The experience of our prosecutors in 2018 appears appears to indicate that the trend is continuing,” he said.
Senate Bill 35 is designed to address sex offenses. Instances of rape rose 2.6 percent from 2016 to 2017 – 145.7 cases per 100,000 citizens that year, leading the nation.
In August of 2017, Schneider, then 33, picked up a woman in Spenard. According to the victim’s account, she was trying to get a ride to Muldoon where her boyfriend lived. Schneider, instead, took her to 36 and Wisconsin – a construction site near the airport, where he worked as an air traffic controller. When she tried to flee, he tackled her; strangled her until she lost consciousness while telling her he was going to kill her. She awoke to him zipping up his pants and handing her a tissue to mop up the semen he had deposited on her person. Schneider would plead guilty to second-degree assault. The crime came with a maximum two-year sentence, but he would walk. One year was suspended and the other was credited for time served under electric monitoring and house arrest.
Non-consensual contract with semen is not a sex crime in Alaska. SB35 aims to close that loophole, a buck short and a victim late. “The law makes unwanted contact with semen a sex offense,” Clarkson explained. “It increases the possible sanctions for this conduct to a range of two-to-twelve years and it provides authority for appropriate monitoring of such an offender.”
The bill also would add restrictions making it easier for courts and law enforcement to force a sex offender to register as one in the state.
The solicitation of a minor, in any circumstance, would become a felony. The “indecent viewing or production of a picture [that] involves a child” would become a registerable offense. And if people entering Alaska, who are registered as a sex offender in their state of origin, would have to register as one here, regardless if the offense they committed is specified in current Alaska state law.
Senate Bill 32 pertains to classification and sentencing. “Drug seizures are increasing every year and the amount of the illegal drugs fueling the opioid epidemic is unacceptable,” Clarkson said.
In 2017, over 37,000 grams of heroin, 14,000 grams of cocaine, and 100,000 grams of methampetamine were seized in Alaska across all agencies, according to the Alaska State Troopers Annual Drug Report. “This bill will ensure that we have significant periods of incarceration for those engaging in drug trafficking in Alaska.” The attorney general noted that SB91 had reduced some of the sentencing ranges for trafficking, as well as other felony and misdemeanor drug crimes. SB32 would revert back to the sentencing guidelines in place before the 2016 law took effect.
Also in the legislation are stronger penalties for pretrial defendants and sentenced offenders who tamper with electronic ankle monitoring devices. Clarkson noted the case of recently re-arrested Buck Mills, who was spotlighted Wednesday morning in The Juneau Empire. Mills, 39, “escaped from Pretrial Enforcement Division Supervision in October 2018” after illegally removing his ankle monitor.
“Under this bill, an individual who does what Mr. Buck Mills did would be charged with a separate felony for having done that,” Clarkson said, adding that the measure would also increase the “maximum length of probation to ensure that offenders are sufficiently monitored and the length of probation for sex offenses goes from 15 years to 25 years.”
Finally, SB32 would repeal and replace an existing crime of “terroristic threatening” to instead be defined as an instance where a person “communicates a threat to commit any crime against any person or property with reckless disregard of the risk of place a person in reasonable fear of serious physical injury to a person; causing the evacuation of a building, public place or area, business premises, or mode of public transportation; causing a serious public inconvenience; or placing the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious physical injury.”
“It enacts a ‘generalized threats’ statute so that law enforcement can act sooner when a person threatens harm to others. For example, in the case of a threatened school shooting,” he summarized.
Senate Bill 33 would deal with pretrial and bail by ending, in Dunleavy’s and Clarkson’s words, putting an “end to the catch and release system in Alaska.” Under the auspices of SB91, a new pretrial evaluation scheme was created using a statewide risk assessment tool. Judges would be given an assessment of a defendant with a zero-to-ten scoring system meant to determine that defendant’s probability of appearing in court and/or becoming a repeat offender. The evaluation system was far from perfect, and plenty of criminals were deemed low-risk – and then promptly fled the state. Opponents of SB91 dubbed this “catch and release.”
“[SB33] gives judges discretion to make decisions appropriate for the circumstance and the criminal history of the individual as to whether they should be released on their own recognizance, placed on electronic monitoring, released to third party custodians, or monitored by the Department of Corrections,” Clarkson explained. He added that it would provide some (albeit limited and yet-to-be-quantified) cost-savings, and again applied it to the Schneider, “who, because he received credit for his pretrial electronic monitoring, did not serve his sentence in jail.”
Senate Bill 34 aims to make it harder for good behavior to used to game the system.
“By this bill, the governor seeks to strengthen the tools that are used to address probationers who abscond from Alaska or otherwise violate probation,” Clarkson said. Discretion, he continued, would be returned to the judges overseeing the cases. “The bill adjusts earned compliance credit to incentivize good behavior on probation, but it changes the system from a day-to-day credit to a three-to-one ratio of credit and it encourages good behavior to continue by stripping an individual of their good time earned if they violate the terms of their release. So, they have an incentive to continue to conduct themselves appropriately.”
The proposal would similarly give additional discretion to the parole board, restricting what crimes are eligible for parole and adjusting the burden of proof required for a prisoner’s release. “This returns us to the structure that existed pre-SB91,” he concluded.
Dunleavy emphasized that resources would be shifted to accommodate fully funding corrections and implementing measures, such as these four bills, to improve public safety. That means that resources are going to have to be shifted away from other things – at a time when the state already faces a $1.6 billion budget deficit, and only budget cuts thus far intimated as the vehicle to close the gap. Dunleavy has also maintained his plan to match revenues – which there aren’t much of – and expenditures – which there are no shortage of. The Department of Education and Early Development alone, as Craig Tuten noted earlier today, is $1.3 billion.
The push for criminal justice reform, which culminated in the passage of SB91 in 2016, was motivated by an expanding prison population and the runaway costs associated with it. Alaska’s pretrial pretrial population grew by 81 percent over the decade before SB91, according to the 2017 Alaska Crime Report, published by the Alaska Judicial Council. Despite this, Corrections cut 25 prosecutors, creating a further backlog.
Leaving aside the unintended (but very real) consequences of the reforms, SB91 was designed to make inroads on the backlog, while reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders and opening up prison beds for violent criminals and those in need of drug and alcohol treatment. The same report estimated the reforms would save the state $169 million over ten years. And the prison population has, in fact, decreased by about 20 percent between 2014 and 2017, according to the Department of Corrections.
Where the funding will come from to support these measures is not clear. DoC Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom told reporters Wednesday, “All options are on the table right now and we’re looking at every facility that we have. We are going to do as the governor stated and as these bills say and keep Alaskans safe. We’re reviewing it all.”
The package of bills now head to their senate committees of referral. SB32 and SB35 start in Senate Judiciary, and then would move to Senate Finance. SB33 heads to Senate State Affairs, then Judiciary, then Finance. SB34 goes to Senate State Affairs, then Finance. No hearings have yet been scheduled.