Two Representatives Defend Vote Against New Crime Bill
By Erin McGroarty, Daily News-Miner
The House and Senate have approved changes to a new crime package, doing away with much of the reform associated with the three-year-old Senate Bill 91 which garnered hefty criticism throughout the Legislature and public safety community.
The newly passed House Bill 49 undoes much of the language within SB 91, increasing sentencing for crimes across the board and advancing many nonviolent crimes to felonies.
For these, and a few other reasons, Fairbanks Democratic Reps. Adam Wool and Grier Hopkins were the only two lawmakers in the entire Legislature to vote against the bill.
Wool, who was elected to the House in 2015, voted in favor of the hallowed SB 91. The District 5 representative said Wednesday he stood by that decision.
“I thought, and think, we need reform. And the current path we’re on of locking more people up for longer for nonviolent crimes is not the direction that we should be going,” Wool told the News-Miner.
Wool noted that the federal government recently has adopted a number of bipartisan Senate bills shifting in the direction of prison reform.
“So I think what we did now was a step backwards,” Wool said, noting that he thought the push for a new crime package was largely an “emotional response” to the recent surge of crime in the Anchorage area.
Wool said that he thought there were issues within SB 91, but he felt the Legislature had addressed many of them.
“Increasing sentencing and creating more felons doesn’t fix the issue when I think most of the people going to jail are dealing with substance abuse issues or mental illness,” Wool said. “They need treatment, they need help and I don’t think jail is the place for that.”
Wool added that states with “SB 91 type reform” have experienced lower crime rates, lower recidivism and lower costs associated with criminal justice.
“We need to get at the root issues, not just lock people up,” Wool said. “This also disproportionately affects low income people and people of color, I mean that’s statistically proven, so that’s another huge issue I took with it.”
Hopkins, on the other hand, was elected in November and was not in office when SB 91 was up for discussion and vote, but agreed with his senior colleague Wednesday that increased sentencing is not the best approach.
“The war on drugs has been going on my whole life, I’ve seen it since I was a kid. I’ve seen it not working my whole life,” Hopkins said. “This bill locks up people longer for less. We’ve seen for decades that doesn’t work and it’s not the direction we need to be going in if we want to fix these issues.”