JUNEAU — The Senate broke with decades of tough-on-crime posturing to pass a sweeping overhaul of Alaska’s criminal justice system that will soften sentencing and hopefully keep offenders from committing new crimes. 

Senate Bill 91 by North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill is the culmination of a data-drive approach to rethink how Alaska approaches offenders, the use of prison and decades of policies that gave former prisoners little choice but to return to crime when released. 

Coghill stressed that as it stands nearly two-thirds of offenders will return to prison in the few years after they’re released. He said it’s a system that simply isn’t working and is costing Alaska millions of dollars. 

“If you just sit there for 120 days or two years or five years or eight years and come out exactly the same then you come back into a society where you can’t re-enter and you can’t find a job and the only life for you is to go back into the criminal world,” he said. “Then what have we done for society?” 

The bill has a dozens of changes to sentencing requirements that soften penalties for non-violent offenses, a rework of bail and pre-trial services that will focus available prison beds on the riskiest of offenders and investment in behind-bars substance abuse treatment and re-entry.

One of the biggest changes addresses how Alaska’s pre-trial prison population, people who can’t make bail and are not yet found guilty, is handled. It’s one of the largest growing segments of the population and has driven prison growth despite an overall reduction in crimes committed, Coghill said.

Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Anchorage, spoke in support of changes in the bill that would favor more electronic monitoring, pre-trial substance abuse treatment and a system to evaluate risk to the public in an attempt to lower the number of unconvicted people in prison. 

“We are putting bad guys away, but we’re also putting people in prison who are non-violent offenders. People are in jail in Alaska for non-violent crimes because they can’t afford $500 to get out of prison,” she said. “We are over-represented by minorities in our prisons and over-represented by those who don’t have wealth. ... They’re stuck in jail, waiting for the courts to act.”

It was one of the most popular pieces in the bill, with minority Democrats rising to speak in favor of the change.

“You shouldn’t be able to get out of jail just because you’re rich,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

The bill envisions the prison population would shrink by some 300 people in the first year it’s implemented with a continued contraction in later years. At more than $100 per day to keep people behind bars, there’s potentially significant savings to the bill.

Much of those savings would be reinvested in re-entry and treatment programs, as well as victims’ rights programs.

Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, played down expectations of the savings in the near term but said it could potentially have a very meaningful impact in the long term as the state averts the need build additional prisons. 

“I was less concerned about the money than the need to look at the system and improve the system,” he said. “This avoids the need for us to build a new prison in the near future, and hopefully we never have to build another one.”

In a news conference afterward, MacKinnon said the changes could help even lead to the closure of one or two of the state’s correctional facilities. 

The bill hasn’t had completely smooth sailing through the Legislature with some victims’ rights groups and local law enforcement agencies voicing concerns against the bill. A group of police departments, including the North Pole Police Department, signed a letter urging legislators to table the bill. 

The bill’s most vocal opponent in the Senate was Chugiak Republican Sen. Bill Stoltze, who’s been sympathetic to the concerns of those groups. 

On the floor he offered five amendments that would do a variety of things ranging from drug testing public assistance recipients if they have a prior drug conviction and lowering thresholds for some property crimes to qualify as a felony. 

Most, such as the drug testing amendment, were rejected, but one that would keep possession of date rape drugs a felony was accepted without objection. 

Stoltze said he felt advocates for victims’ rights were not properly integrated into the bill.

“I feel like I’m the guy who’s raining on the parade but I’m one voice and if I didn’t raise it I wouldn’t be representing my constituents,” he said. 

In a news conference afterward, Coghill was asked about the lingering opposition to the bill. He said there’s still a lasting belief that prison is the only solution to crimes, but that the evidence proves otherwise. 

“They feel jail is the only option that is reasonable, so it’s more fear than fundamentals,” he said. 

Similar changes to what’s contained in Senate Bill 91 have been passed in other states, including conservative states like Texas. 

MacKinnon said that’s why the bill includes an extension of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a group that came up with the recommendations for the bill, so it can evaluate how the bill works once implemented. 

When it came to a vote the bill passed 16-2 with Stoltze and Wasilla Republican Charlie Huggins as the sole no votes on the bill. 

The bill now heads to the House, which has already begun work on a version of Coghill’s bill. A hearing has already been scheduled on the bill for today in the House Judiciary Committee. There’s a week left in session. 

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.