People in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta haven’t been talking much about SB 54, the crime bill working its way through the special session of the Alaska State Legislature, but House Representative Zach Fansler says that it’s time to start paying attention.
An amended version of the bill passed in the House at 1 a.m. on Tuesday and could be signed into law within the next two weeks if the Senate agrees to the changes, but Fansler fears that parts of the bill could disproportionately hurt Alaska Native people.
We reached Fansler on his cellphone while he was walking through the Seattle airport on his way to an Emerging Leaders conference in San Jose. He keeps a tight schedule and the past two weeks have been busy. "For 14 days I think I was sleeping four or five hours a night," he said. "We would start at 8:00 a.m. and go until 10:30 at night."
Fansler is the Vice Chair of the House’s Judiciary Committee, a five-person panel that specializes in issues involving Alaska’s court system and has played a pivotal role in shaping the controversial SB 54.
SB 54 is designed to pull back some of the provisions in SB 91, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that Governor Walker signed into law about a year ago. SB 91 took away or decreased prison time for most commonly committed crimes. Penalties for murder or sexual assault stayed the same, but the recommended prison time for crimes like theft, for instance, went down. Many defendants were given probation instead and ended up back on the streets.
Critics of SB 91 claim this has caused crime to skyrocket in some areas, though Fansler says that it’s too early to tell if the law has had that effect. SB 54 is a response to those critics’ concerns and would roll back SB 91’s reforms by increasing punishments for certain crimes.
The bill’s gone through a chaotic series of revisions over the past few weeks. Fansler voted for SB 54 on Tuesday and while he agrees with several of its amendments, he has misgivings about the House version of the bill. Under this version of SB 54, people found guilty of a Class C Felony could serve up to two years in prison, even if it’s their first offense. Crimes classified as Class C Felonies vary widely. Threatening someone with a gun is a Class C Felony, but so is snatching a purse or stealing life vests from a fishing boat.
That’s one of several harsher measures in SB 54. In the current iteration of the bill, defendants who are found guilty of theft in the fourth degree, or stealing something that’s worth less than $250, could also serve time.
"That’s one of the amendments that I fought endlessly," Fansler said. "I mean this is an extreme example, obviously, but if you were a first time offender, and say you stole a pop or candy bar and you were convicted, theoretically you could be sentenced up to five days in jail."
According to Fansler, these harsher prison sentences could hurt Alaska Native people. The Alaskan criminal justice system imprisons a disproportionate number of its Native citizens. "And it's not just a small anomaly," Fansler said. "It's a very, very large anomaly. We do know it's happening and we must do everything in our power to stop it."
Alaska Native men account for 8 percent of the state’s population, but make up 37 percent of the prison population. Three out of four Alaska Natives sent to prison end up going back. This statistic has been called “wrong” and “completely unacceptable” by Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams and if prison time for nonviolent crimes go up, more Alaska Native people could be spending more time behind bars.
It’s not clear if this version of SB 54 will become law. The Finance and Judiciary Committees of both houses met to review it on Wednesday and the bill needs concurrence by the State Senate. Fansler, for one, says that he hopes that some of the bill’s more severe amendments end up being rolled back.