JUNEAU, Alaska — The Alaska Senate holds the fate of a bill imposing stiffer penalties for certain crimes, which was aimed at addressing public safety concerns that arose after a sweeping criminal justice overhaul.
Concerns about the state’s growing prison population and high rates of recidivism led to the 2016 overhaul, which was based on recommendations from a special commission. Recommendations included limiting the use of prison for lower-level misdemeanor offenders, targeting prison space instead for violent and more serious offenders.
Rising crime rates have fanned the debate playing out during the current special session, with some lawmakers seeing the overhaul as soft on crime and calling for its repeal.
After days of floor debate, the House early Tuesday passed the bill, SB54.
The Senate Finance Committee scheduled a hearing to get an overview of the measure on Friday.
Some lawmakers saw the version of SB54 that passed the House as fixing flaws in the overhaul and improving public safety. Others saw it as too much of a knee-jerk reaction. Some, meanwhile, didn’t think the bill went far enough in rolling back the overhaul.
Republican Sen. John Coghill, who has been a leader in criminal justice reform efforts in the Legislature, sponsored the original version of SB54 and said he will recommend a conference committee on the House’s rewrite of the bill. The Senate passed its own version of the bill earlier this year.
Gov. Bill Walker, in a statement Tuesday, thanked the House for its work. “I look forward to seeing the Senate concur, and to signing the bill when it reaches my desk,” he said.
Coghill said he wanted clarity on what the governor meant about Senate concurrence.
“Do you mean, just get me a bill or do you want the House bill? And I think he probably meant, just get me a bill,” Coghill said.
Walker spokesman Jonathon Taylor said since Walker issued his statement, the governor’s office was made aware of some issues that need to be resolved between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
“It is the governor’s hope that a final version of the bill will be on his desk for signature as soon as possible in order to make Alaskans safer,” Taylor said in an email.
Crime so far has dominated the special session, which began Oct. 23.
Special sessions in Alaska can last up to 30 days, and Coghill said he thinks there’s enough time left to reach agreement on the crime bill.