The Alaska State Capitol on April 22, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney)
Citing Alaska’s high mortality rates associated with drug overdoses, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is seeking harsher criminal penalties for people who make or supply controlled substances that cause someone’s death. Under the legislation, prosecutors would be able to charge drug dealers and drug manufacturers connected to the death with second-degree murder, exposing criminal defendants to longer sentences and eliminating early release.
Several family members of individuals who’ve died from substance poisoning support the bills. However, the ACLU of Alaska has raised concerns about the legislation’s effectiveness and its potential to undermine public safety.
On March 27, the House Judiciary Committee approved one version of the legislation, House Bill 66, and sent it to the finance committee. On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its version, Senate Bill 64, for further review.
Broadly known as drug-induced homicide laws, other states have adopted similar measures. But critics of the policies say harsher sentences aren’t meaningful deterrents for manufacturers and dealers, and may actually prevent friends and family from calling 911 for help during an overdose out of fear they may be arrested.
Current Alaska state law allows for manslaughter charges in drug-related deaths. The call for increased penalties comes as the state grapples with a spike in overdose deaths, leaving grieving families desperate for accountability and insistent for an end to the epidemic.
In 2021, 253 Alaskans died from a drug-related overdose, an increase of nearly 74% over the prior year, according to the Alaska Department of Health. Data published by the department in July 2022 show overdose deaths have risen every year since 2018, driven largely by fentanyl and methamphetamine.
“That’s an increase that demands the attention of the leaders in Alaska,” Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a Mar. 22 hearing.
Alaska law already provides for a charge of manslaughter in instances where someone knows they are involved in a crime, and someone dies as a result of that conduct.
Increasing the penalty to second-degree murder would mean a longer minimum sentence – 20 years instead of four to seven years – and could potentially result in a life sentence.
“It allows us to pursue those individuals that peddle these poisons to our citizens more aggressively,” Skidmore said as he presented the bill.
“This law, I think, is one of the tools that can be used in prosecutions to negotiate with lower-level drug dealers,” she told the committee.
Snodgrass explained she’d hoped the law would be used to go after drug trafficking organizations, and not friends and families of the deceased who may themselves be struggling with addiction or substance misuse.
Snodrass wasn’t alone in urging lawmakers to pass the bill.
Stacy Eisert’s son, Jason, 41, a high school English teacher, also died from fentanyl poisoning in 2021.
“My son’s death was an act of homicide by those persons who knowingly manufactured or delivered a controlled substance to Jason. There isn’t a prison sentence for these individuals that can compare to the prison sentence that I have been in that I endure every day,” Eisert said during her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Every person who sells drugs is aware that fentanyl could be laced in the drugs. So I implore you to vote yes,” said Karen Malcolm Smith, speaking after Eisert. “Because we’re losing a generation,” she said,
In 2017 Smith’s son, David Dillon, 25, died from an overdose.
Skidmore said drug-induced homicide cases can be difficult to prosecute, because it requires proving that the drugs were a direct cause of a death. Prosecutors also need to be able to connect those drugs back to specific individuals who made or supplied them.
“Our ability to prosecute those cases is very, very limited,” Skidmore said during the hearing. “I’m not asking you to change the challenges for us in presenting them. What the bill does ask you to do is to authorize a greater penalty to be associated for the people who engage in that conduct.”
In a letter filed in opposition to Senate Bill 64, ACLU of Alaska Advocacy Directory Michael Garvey asked lawmakers to take note of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, which he said does not recommend new or increased sentences.
The legislation “is more likely to be used against people with substance misuse issues and people seeking help than high-level drug dealers, and will deter people from calling for medical assistance. Eighty percent of people incarcerated in Alaska have a substance use disorder. This bill will make that problem worse,” wrote Garvey, who also criticized the elimination of “good time,” which he said would disincentivize rehabilitation.
Good time is a path to early release by following rules and participating in required activities during incarceration. In Alaska, good time makes defendants eligible for up to one-third off their prison term.
The group Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization of elected prosecutors focused on justice reforms, has also deemed such prosecutions as problematic. “These prosecutions undermine Good Samaritan laws, potentially increase the risk of overdose deaths, exacerbate racial disparities, and consume limited law enforcement and criminal justice resources,” the group wrote in a recent report on Drug-Induced Homicide Prosecutions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has not announced a date for the next hearing on the bill. A hearing for the House version in the finance committee also hasn’t been announced.
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