JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Legislators have beefed up Alaska's laws in order to get tough on crime in recent years, but they haven't changed what constitutes a felony, which can include anything from illegally possessing a prescription painkiller to stealing a bike.
Two bills before the Alaska Legislature would help narrow the definition of a major crime. A proposal from state Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, would change sentencing guidelines for drug offenders. And a bill from state Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, seeks to raise the value threshold for felony property crimes.
Since 2005, "we have really ratcheted up getting tougher and tougher on crime — totally appropriate in many areas," Coghill said.
However, he added, "If we've made it harder to get out of a felony, but haven't changed how hard it is to get into a felony, maybe we've got to look at this."
The bills fall in line with a growing effort in the U.S. that supporters call "smart justice." The movement shies away from the traditional "nail 'em and jail 'em" attitude toward criminals and instead examines the justice system to analyze whether the length and nature of a punishment fits the severity of a crime.
Supporters say such measures ensure that the state doesn't pay for expensive prosecutions or lengthy prison terms for nonviolent criminals who have the potential to be rehabilitated.
"People at my end of the political spectrum beat their chests and say, 'We're going to be tough on crime,'" Dyson told The Associated Press. They "put these presumptive sentences in and elevate — some inappropriately — crimes into the felony category that shouldn't be."
Coghill said he doesn't want to be seen as soft on crime with his bill and instead sees it as a matter of justice.
"The government should be swift to penalize bad-doers, but open to those who will change," he said.
"That's just being just," he added.
Dyson's bill, SB56, would make the possession of a small amount of certain drugs a misdemeanor if a person has not been convicted of more than two drug-related offenses.
It would also establish a "three strikes" rule for certain drug crimes, allowing the state to charge repeat offenders with a felony for any drug possession after two prior controlled substance-related convictions.
Dyson said in his sponsor statement that he wants to establish an escalating scale of punishment, similar to what Alaska has for those convicted of driving under the influence.
"I want our punishment for the crime, the consequence to fit the offense and not be a barrier to that person being a productive citizen after they've 'paid their debt to society,'" Dyson said.
His office noted that 14 states have similar laws that make certain drug possession crimes a misdemeanor, while five and the District of Columbia have passed similar sentencing laws in the last three years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Coghill, who hasn't yet decided if he supports Dyson's bill, wants to raise the value threshold for property crimes — something that hasn't been done in Alaska since 1978.
His legislation, SB43, would change what constitutes a misdemeanor property crime. Today, stealing property valued from $50 to $500 is a misdemeanor. Coghill's bill would change those values to $250 to $1,000, respectively — which is still below the rate of inflation.
"It's inappropriate to let inflation tell you what is a felony," Coghill said. "I'm very sympathetic to people who have thieves stealing property, but a year in jail and a $10,000 fine is still a pretty significant step."
Alaska has one of the nation's highest rates of prison population growth. And from 2002 to 2010, the proportion of nonviolent offenders is rising.
Both bills have received support, but neither is listed as a top priority by the Senate Majority Caucus.
Those who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke mostly in favor of the legislation. At one, Carmen Gutierrez, former deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections, called Dyson's drug bill a "sound public safety minded strategy."
Also testifying in support of Dyson's bill were Rick Allen, the director of the Office of Public Advocacy, and Walt Monegan, a former commissioner of Department of Public Safety, Anchorage police chief and now president of the Alaska Native Justice Center.
The bill "is based on a logical and intuitive approach to addiction," Monegan said. "It can forestall the branding of a felony upon a subject who otherwise would be carrying that thing for life, and that will close so many doors. And closing those doors almost guarantees the continued drug use or abuse."
The Alaska chapter of American Civil Liberties Union supports Coghill's bill.
However, Sean Crousore, the loss prevention coordinator for Fred Meyer Stores, one of the state's major retailers, said his organization opposes the property crime proposal. He worries increasing the dollar values for a misdemeanor will make the chain's high-end items — like vacuums, iPods and TVs — more of a target for thieves.