Bills on drug crimes and confinement of offenders fall short in Alaska Legislature

    Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference in 2016 in New York. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

    Juneau, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) - Both bills are responses to tragedies; each bill passed one legislative body but was still being reviewed in the other chamber’s judiciary committee

    Two criminal-justice bills remain pending in the Alaska Legislature after Wednesday’s adjournment of the 2023 session, even though each passed one of the bodies.

    The first bill would reclassify drug-overdose deaths as second-degree murders instead of manslaughter cases. It passed the House on May 11 but failed to advance out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure, House Bill 66, also contains provisions that increase jail terms for drug-related crimes, as well as provisions relating to dosing of other people, such as in cases where so-called “date-rape” drugs are used to incapacitate and assault victims.

    The second bill would require prosecutors to file for petitions to confine people deemed dangerous but mentally incompetent to face trial. It passed the Senate on May 8 but was still in the House Judiciary Committee at the time of adjournment. The measure, Senate Bill 53, would allow confinement for up to two years; the current maximum is 180 days.

    Although the Legislature adjourned its regular session on Tuesday, both bills could receive more action next year.

    Both measures were inspired by tragedies.

    The drug bill, sponsored by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, came as a response to Alaska’s sharply increasing rate of drug-overdose deaths, driven largely by fentanyl, an extremely potent opioid.

    Among those campaigning for it has been Sandy Snodgrass, whose 22-year-old son, Bruce, died of a fentanyl overdose in October of 2021. Bruce, her only child, “dropped where he stood, 40 feet away from a Wells Fargo drive-through and a McDonalds drive-through in Anchorage, Alaska, and was not able to call out for help, just dropped where he stood,” Snodgrass, who now heads the AK Fentanyl Response project, she said at an April 13 House Finance Committee hearing. “I believe that rather than being classified as an accidental overdose, what happened to my son was a poisoning. It should be considered a drug-induced homicide.”

    The catalyst for the involuntary confinement bill was a February 2022 stabbing, a random attack in Anchorage’s main library, that left a woman paralyzed. The assailant was a man with a history of mental-health problems and violent episodes; the victim, Angela Harris, has been campaigning for the bill.

    Before Harris was stabbed, her assailant could have been confined for mental-health reasons, but no one filed a petition required to make that happen, said Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, the bill’s sponsor. Even the assailant’s mother, who had been the victim of a previous violent episode, could have filed, Claman said. As of now, “it’s unclear who has the responsibility” for making such filings, he said. The bill would compel prosecutors to file such positions in cases of mentally incompetent defendants, thus filling that gap, he said.

    Originally, the confinement period would have been up to five years, but that was shortened in the committee process.

    Sen. Bill Wielechowski said he was not sure why the bill did not move further in the House. “That was an important one, I know, for many people, and it just didn’t get across the finish line,” Wielechowski said at a Wednesday news conference held after the Senate’s regular-session adjournment.

    While the bill passed the Senate, there was some bipartisan opposition in that body based on concerns over civil liberties.

    There are likewise some concerns about elements of the drug bill now pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Claman, the committee chair. The concerns are about lengthened sentences for defendants whose actions are driven by their own addictions, he said.

    “Do you make people that are just kind of street-level dealers in jail for longer periods of time when you know there are addiction issues?” he said on Monday. Indications are that longer sentences are not effective in curbing drug abuse, he noted.

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