A team of justice professionals lined the front of the community room in the Chugiak Senior Center, Saturday, armed with statistics, graphs and a commitment to clarify the status of the justice system in Alaska. The main discussion being the justice reform legislation SB91, also referred to as “the Crime Bill” passed during the 2016 legislative session.
A crowd of about 65 people attended. Most to take it all in, some with questions and several with impassioned concerns about community burglaries and sentencing laws.
Sen. Anna MacKinnon initiated the event, inviting key players that included three State Commissioners, the Mayor, APD, a criminologist and members from the Attorney General’s office and the Alaska Judicial Council (AJC).
The meeting started with a rundown of SB 54, another justice bill being presented by Sen. John Coghill that will be on the schedule this legislative session.
Mayor Berkowitz mentioned his experience as a prosecutor, welcoming reforms to the system that would work smoother and focus resources in the most efficient way.
A similar message came from Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan. His focus in the process of working with offenders is “to get (offenders) to where they don’t offend anymore.” He acknowledged some things will “need to be tweeked” in the process of redesigning the structure for criminal processing.
According to a brief provided by the Alaska Judicial Council and the PEW Charitable Trusts, “the pretrial population – those who have been arrested and are detained while awaiting court hearings – had increased by 81 percent between 2005 and 2014.”
The largest growth in the system has been in the pretrial area- the part of the process where offenders are arraigned, bail set and hearings are scheduled. Going back to 1973, the pretrial system has been examined and evaluated and attempts have been made to modify the outcomes over the years.
Dean Williams, Dept. of Corrections Commissioner, explained that the key element of SB 91 will be in the “pretrial” component of the bill, expected to go into force in January 2018. The successful outcome of the entire reform, especially the pretrial reforms, should cut the prison population by 25 percent.
Williams said that “getting a handle on who you are dealing with right out of the gate” would expedite the process. He gave examples of determining if the person charged was a repeat offender, a person in need of medical assistance for mental illness or addiction, or someone who just had a bad day, make a mistake and would be unlikely to reoffend.
William mentioned that the monetary bail system contributes to the problem. Two people could commit the same minor crime, but if one has money to pay bail, they get released to go back to work or deal with the situation outside of jail. The person who can’t afford the bail, may end up staying in jail, jeopardizing their job, their ability to pay bills and add strain to their family.
He says the goal is to keep violent offenders in jail.
Chief Assistant Attorney General John Skidmore noted that Alaska may be in a “perfect storm” for adding populations to the prisons. He cited the opioid epidemic raging in Alaska. Governor Bill Walker issued a disaster declaration on Feb. 15, addressing the epidemic as a public health crisis.
Susanne Dipietro of AJC says this reform process will be monitored more than previous changes. She says the Council will be constantly collecting data and reporting annually to the legislature. The Council will make recommendations for modifications based on the data.
DiPietro also talked about the element of treatment, citing that a large number of those in prison experience mental illness.
Members of the audience garnered current and former legislators and Assembly members such as Amy Demboski, Fred Dyson, Shelly Hughes, Lora Reinbold, Dan Saddler and Cathy Tilton.
Audience questions were sharp, critical, curious and impassioned.
“What was the difference between an A Misdemeanor and a C Felony?” “Why not take away privileges like television?” “How do you screen for mental illness.”
Presenters explained that basically, a misdemeanor crime receives a maximum jail sentence of one year, whereas a Felony will receive more than one year.
Tools for evaluating mental illness are being developed for use in January 2017. Williams said the corrections system is essentially the State’s largest psychiatric hospital and treating inmates or referring people at pretrial will be important.
Sherry Miller of Eagle River wanted to know why the person who murdered her daughter, Linda Bower, in 2014 might be eligible for parole after only 14 years. “He should not be walking.” The audience applauded loudly.
Williams explained that her daughter’s murder occurred prior to SB 91, so the longer sentences for violent crimes directed by the bill weren’t in effect.
John Skidmore, director of the criminal division of the state’s Law department based in Anchorage, assured her that simply being eligible for parole didn’t mean parole would be granted.
Butch Moore, whose daughter’s death brought about Bree’s law which passed the legislature in 2016, says he plans to work to work on legislation involving the duty to report. Bree’s Law has since been combined with Erin’s law to become HB 44, Alaska Safe Children’s Act. The law Moore currently proposes would hold accountable those who know about a violent crime or potential for crime and intentionally keep it secret or cover up for the offenders. This would include family, friends or medical professionals, but would also apply to anyone with information.
Moore cited the recent murders of teenagers David Grunwald and Frank Woodford. Moore said that the mother of Damien Peterson, the man charged in Woodford case, and also the mother of Devin Peterson, who is charged with three felony accounts of tampering with physical evidence and one felony account of hindering prosecution in the kidnapping and murder case of Grunwald, knew of the crimes and helped cover up the scene in one case. But she did not report the information to police, he said. Moore also said that he had just recently learned that the parent of his daughter’s murderer also knew her son had a mental illness and propensity for violence, but that she had not shared that with or warned Bree.
He wants those with knowledge of mental illness to be required to report that information.
He later presented his idea to the legislative delegation on hand for a town hall from 2 to 4 p.m. also held in the senior center dining hall.
Editor’s Note: Gretchen Wehmhoff is a member of the ECHO News team and is a long-time resident of Chugiak and former instructor at Chugiak High School. She is also a candidate for Anchorage Assembly and will not be covering Assembly-oriented topics during her candidacy.