Why Alaska’s US senators say ‘no’ to criminal justice reform bill

With help from the Trump White House, a criminal justice reform bill is cruising through Congress. The First Step Act shortens sentences for some federal inmates and provides more opportunities for rehabilitation. It passed the Senate late Tuesday by a vote of 87 to 12.

But both Alaska senators voted against it. Sen. Dan Sullivan cited Alaska’s experience with SB 91. That’s the state criminal justice reform bill the Alaska Legislature passed in 2016. Many associate it with an increase in car theft and burglaries, particularly in Anchorage and Juneau.

Sullivan said it would be great if the federal bill works as intended, to trim unfairly long sentences and increase rehabilitation opportunities without compromising public safety.

“But I have my doubts,” he said, a few hours before he voted. “And right now, the concern about crime and criminal justice reform in Alaska is so high. That’s the main reason why I’m voting against it.”

Sullivan said the national legislation, like SB 91, aims to reduce sentences for less serious crimes, but he says the leniency goes too far.

“I think that was one of the big challenges of SB 91, where some of the – quote – lower level crimes had sentencing reductions, and even going from a felony to a misdemeanor,” he said. “And you saw, in many ways, a significant increase in crime.”

While the Alaskan senators are cool on the bill, the White House and much of Congress is celebrating the bipartisan support for the First Step Act. And in Alaska, SB 91 has its defenders, too.

“There’s not unlimited money and if we’re going to try to have resources for treatment, we have to do something different with non-violent offenders (who) have little criminal history,” said state Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage.

He said Alaska’s crime increase coincided with the opioid crisis and both started well before the Legislature passed SB 91. Claman said a report last month by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission shows the state’s reform laws are working.

“We actually have a higher percentage in Alaska prisons of violent offenders and a lower percentage of non-violent offenders,” Claman said. “We have fewer people in prison for simple possession. We have more people in prison for drug dealing. And we’re spending more resources on rehabilitation.”

But amid a highly visible spike in urban crime, criminal justice reform remains controversial in Alaska.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski issued a statement before her no vote saying Congress needed more time to evaluate the bill.

Proponents have been working on it for months, but it got a sudden boost in recent days with President Trump’s support.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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