Criminal justice reform meeting draws Chugiak-Eagle River pleas for change

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 11:51
  • Anchorage City Hall. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Star file photo/Matt Tunseth

Chugiak-Eagle River residents were among a crowd of people who stood up to speak out about crime and criminal justice concerns during a packed Anchorage Assembly public safety committee meeting Sept. 29.

The Friday morning public hearing focused on recent and proposed reforms to Alaska’s criminal justice system: Senate Bill 91, passed by the Alaska Legislature in 2016, and Senate Bill 54, another set of reforms under consideration this coming legislative session. An assembly resolution submitted by assemblymen Eric Croft and Dick Traini supported state passage of SB54 with certain modifications. Chugiak-Eagle River assemblywoman Amy Demboski said she planned to introduce a resolution supporting a state repeal of SB91.

Whatever happened, those gathered agreed, something had to change. When it comes to crime in Anchorage, people have had enough, they said.

“This has got to stop,” said Eagle River resident Kaye Laughlin, addressing assembly members in the packed City Hall conference room Friday. “I’m not going to say ‘please.’”

The room filled with applause.

While the assembly has no say in state legislation, constituents on Friday demanded action. One after another for nearly an hour, people shared stories about stolen cars and gunshots in the street, thefts, vandalism, drug abuse and delayed police responses. The public hearing included testimony from South Anchorage to Peters Creek and nearly everywhere in between.

“It’s beyond downtown, it goes all the way out,” said Laughlin, an Eagle River resident for 26 years. “I live in a nice neighborhood — this should not be happening.”

Crime rates are on the rise in Chugiak-Eagle River and across Alaska, according to data from the Anchorage Police Department and the FBI. The statewide trend began years ago. An ongoing opioid epidemic only contributes to the problem, according to police and prosecutors.

SB91 was originally touted as a way to decrease Alaska’s ballooning prison population, favoring drug and alcohol treatment programs and probation in lieu of jail time for low-level and first-time offenders. But the measure has faced harsh, vocal criticism since its passage in 2016: In community council meetings, public forums and social media posts, many Alaskans blame SB91 for the increase in crime. A year after its passage, the measure drew condemnation from state legislators and local lawmakers alike.

“It’s like somebody blows your leg off and you put a Band-Aid on it, where really you need a tourniquet, and you need full-on surgery,” Demboski said.

The Chugiak-Eagle River assemblywoman said she believed SB54 was an attempt to preserve SB91 – a measure she’d like to see abolished almost entirely. She said she planned to introduce a resolution supporting its repeal in early October.

“This is advice – assembly resolutions really don’t carry weight, especially for legislative issues,” she said. “But this is a recommendation.”

Some of the people who testified Friday spoke about taking matters into their own hands by arming themselves or joining community patrols and other citizen groups. Chugiak resident Georgia Kostura, who heard about the Sept. 29 public hearing via a post on a community Facebook page, said she stays active in several neighborhood watch groups.

“That’s our only protection,” Kostura said. “Who are we going to call if there’s a problem? Nobody’s going to come. So we all stay really, really connected; if we see something, we say something, we post it.”

Kostura said she’s seen strangers trying to break into her car at 5:30 a.m., and reported a steady stream of suspicious activity coming and going from a run-down property in her neighborhood. It all seems to be getting worse, she said, standing in the crowded City Hall hallway after the Sept. 29 public hearing.

“I wasn’t going to go, because I’m sort of – a little bit – feeling like there’s no hope for this, because we’re dealing with politicians,” Kostura said. “I don’t know if the government can fix this.”

The Alaska Legislature is expected to discuss SB54 during a fourth special session convening Oct. 23, according to Alaska Gov. Bill Walker. The Anchorage Assembly is scheduled to hold another public work session on crime and criminal justice issues on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 9 a.m. at the Loussac Library at 3200 Denali Street.

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