- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - A state Senate committee has made changes to a sweeping criminal justice bill, including capping the amount of time that could be taken off of a prison sentence for good behavior and eliminating a drug-testing requirement for ex-convicts to receive welfare benefits.

The Senate Finance Committee debated amendments to North Pole Sen. John Coghill’s bill on Saturday and Monday. The bill is aimed at reducing the state’s daily prison population and using savings to fund programs that reduce the chances of criminals re-offending and returning to jail. Senators have been debating the particulars of how to reach those goals since the bill was introduced during the last legislative session.

Changes the committee approved include raising the amount of money needed for certain property crime like vehicle theft to become felonies from $750 to $2,000. They also removed a provision that would have given sex offenders credit for good time served for completing a treatment program while in jail.

Coghill’s bill is modeled after changes suggested by a state criminal justice commission. That commission recommended changes such as reduced sentences, higher thresholds for property crimes and a presumption of citation instead of arrest for many misdemeanors.

However, Coghill said some of the changes have been more palatable to lawmakers than others. He said sentences for sex offenders have been difficult to address. Some provisions in the bill that would have incentivized sex offenders to seek treatment or comply with probation requirements were voted out by the committee.

“There’s a scale in there between how you balance public safety, public condemnation and cost savings,” Coghill said. “Some of the public condemnation on some of the sex violent crimes just wouldn’t allow us to change the methodology.”

Sex offender treatment programs will still be offered in jail, Coghill said, but there just won’t be a reward for offenders who choose to go through the programs.

The committee also voted in a provision that requires that felony sex offenders serve at least one-half of their sentences before becoming eligible for discretionary parole hearings.

To track how the changes are working for the state, the bill extends the criminal justice commission until 2021 and established several types of data on criminals, charges and criminal history information that will be collected, analyzed and reported to the governor and legislature annually.

The committee’s chair, Sen. Anna McKinnon, said discussion on the fiscal impact of the amended bill would begin Tuesday morning.

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