Residents rail against SB91 at rare Anchorage meeting

The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage.
The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage. (Staff photo)

Amid growing frustration over an uptick in crime, officials in Anchorage are weighing what kind of solutions they want from lawmakers in Juneau. The Anchorage Assembly took the rare step of holding a meeting Saturday to hear public testimony on what residents would like to see done about Senate Bill 91, the omnibus criminal justice reform measure signed into law in July of 2016. Almost immediately after the bill passed, a debate began over whether its provisions were worsening the city’s levels of property and violent crime. That argument is now boiling over in community councils, Assembly meetings, and listening sessions arranged by state legislators.

Listen now

One resident with a negative view of the bill’s reforms is Cindy Moore, whose daughter was killed by her boyfriend in 2014. Since then, Moore and her husband have been persistent advocates for changes to the criminal justice system in Alaska.

“Our system was broken before SB91. Now that SB91 has passed, it’s worse,” Moore said during emotional testimony at Saturday’s meeting.

The Assembly’s public safety committee is currently assessing two resolutions to send to state legislators. The measures are non-binding, but could influence how Anchorage’s large delegation pursues reforms in the coming special session and beyond. One proposal from the committee’s chairman, Eric Croft, himself a former prosecutor, asks for an increase in funding for alcohol and drug counseling promised under the law, along with modest revisions to the legal code. A competing resolution from Assembly member Amy Demboski asks for a full repeal of SB91, which Demboski believes is too broken to be fixed. Nearly everyone who spoke during four hours of testimony demanded a full repeal.

Richard Evans has lived in Anchorage most of his life, and is frustrated by the years-long rise in crime coupled with what he says is an inadequate response from police that leaves citizens and business owners like himself ready to take security into their own hands.

“I’m not going to call Anchorage Police Department if someone breaks into my house. I will not call them to stop the crime, I will not call them to deal with the people coming into my house. I will be calling them to pick up a corpse,” Evans said to wide applause from the audience.

When SB91 passed, its aim was to save taxpayers money by reducing jail time for non-violent offenders, and put the savings into treatment and anti-recidivism programming. Elected officials in Anchorage say they are not receiving that state money for substance abuse treatment. And some prosecutors believe scaling back on penalties for misdemeanor crimes like shop-lifting and low-level theft has emboldened criminality while simultaneously making their work harder.

“From a prosecution level it has dramatically impaired the tools that we have to effectively hold people to account and that’s what we do,” Michael Schaffer, a lawyer in the Municipal Prosecutor’s office, said.

Schaffer testified the office is facing pressure from multiple fronts. The state District Attorney’s office, which handles more serious felony crimes in Anchorage, has less capacity because of cuts from legislators to the Department of Law. As a result, Schaffer said the DA’s office declines a greater number of serious cases that are passed back down to municipal prosecutors and added to already-heavy caseloads.

A small number of those who spoke Saturday cautioned against using SB91 as a scapegoat for a number of overlapping issues facing Anchorage and the state. One of them was Sean Dabney, who testified he’d spent most of his adult life behind bars from drug offenses in his early 20s. Dabney sees blame being heaped on SB91 as people look for explanations to overlapping social ills.

“It seems like right now it’s just a witch hunt. SB91’s the witch, and we’re trying to get rid of it,” Dabney said. “But you can’t just throw people away. And if you just repeal SB91 then, to me, you’re still (locking) people up, (throwing) away the key.”

Both resolutions on SB91, the reform and the repeal options, will go to a vote before the full Assembly during it’s Tuesday night meeting in the Loussac Library.