Juneau Police Officer Takes On Criminal Justice Reform

Juneau Police Lt. Kris Sell has been appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell to serve on the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. Sell is the only active police officer to serve on the commission, which was created by a bill that passed the legislature earlier this year. Its purpose is to evaluate sentencing laws and law enforcement practices, and to make recommendations for improving the system, which may include changes to criminal rehabilitation and restitution policies.

Download Audio:

Sell says she was asked to apply after Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Ronald Taylor recommended her for the appointment.

Sell says she’s never served on a commission like this before, but is looking forward to the challenge. She returned to Juneau earlier this week after the commission’s first meeting in Anchorage.

“We’re kind of spending this first month trying to get our arms around this issue as to how do we really do corrections better? How do we make the public safer and get the most impact out of our corrections dollars and really chart a course for the future?”

Alaska has the nation’s highest rate of criminals who reoffend. Senate Bill 64, the omnibus crime bill that created the commission, was aimed at lowering that rate and preventing the state from having to construct another prison in the near future. The bill was modeled after so-called Smart Justice policy reforms and initiatives that have shown up in states like Texas, Florida, California and Washington. Sell says she’s familiar with some of the reform models.

Kris Sell testifying in March on behalf of the Alaska Peace Officers Association. (Image courtesy Gavel Alaska)
Kris Sell testifying in March on behalf of the Alaska Peace Officers Association. (Image courtesy Gavel Alaska)

“I’m still learning a lot of what’s out there and I’m not willing to say I’ve come to a lot of conclusions at this point,” Sell said. “I would say that I am the last person who would agree that someone who is dangerous should be out on the street”

Sell is married to former state prosecutor Patrick Gullufsen. When asked if she and her spouse discuss policy issues, Sell said yes, but that she consults with many people in her work. She’s also vice president of the Alaska Peace Officers Association.

“I have a lot of connections; there are also prosecutors that I work with almost every single day,” Sell said. “I’m sure we’ll discuss things but I will discuss things with other prosecutors as well. I can tell you that we don’t always see things the same way.”

Sell said of all the reform ideas she’s heard, one she’s not keen on is lessening punishment for drug crimes. While she definitely sees a need for increased rehabilitation services, she says drug sentencing should stay as it is. She even testified during the last legislative session against a bill introduced by Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, which would have significantly changed how certain drug crimes are prosecuted. Dyson’s intent with the bill was to keep non-violent offenders out of Alaska’s jails. Sell now works with Dyson on the commission.

“It came up when I was interviewed for this position that I did come out against Sen. (Fred) Dyson’s bill and testified against (lessening the consequences for certain drug crimes),” Sell said. “And Sen. Dyson is involved in this committee so this committee was not built to service one viewpoint.”

Sell says she hopes to bring the law enforcement perspective to a commission that will be discussing at times intangible ideas about how to reform the criminal justice system in Alaska. She says that while she appreciates and supports some creative solutions to criminal justice problems, the commission will need to consider the perspective of the law enforcement officers who are often first responders to violent or dangerous situations.

“Lofty academic ideas can sometimes be a disaster in the middle of the night in a dark alley or inside a home filled with terrified children and a traumatized spouse,” Sell said. “My job is to bring to some of these discussions that real world view.”

Others on the commission include retired and current state judges, commissioners from the Departments of Public Safety and Corrections, Attorney General Michael Geraghty and representatives from various social service organizations across the state.