Stiffer penalties for crimes coming down the road
The Alaska State Senate has approved the House version of SB 54, a measure that puts teeth back into consequences for a wide range of violations of laws against property damage and theft, peddling small amounts of heroin, owning or operating houses of prostitution, car theft, threatening another with a gun, as well as violation of conditions of probation and parole.
The legislation stemmed from public perception of a rise in crime following last year’s corrections reform bill, SB 91. The Alaska State Legislature designed SB 91 to reduce the justice system’s reliance on incarceration and replace costs of $150 per person per day with close supervision and treatment for defendants out on pretrial bail or probation. Folks said a softening of consequences had led to a rise in the crime rate and repeat offenses.
Advocates of SB 91 said that bill would save money and lower repeated offending, according to studies.
A letter to the legislature opposing SB 91 from the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police stressed that SB 91 as a cheaper alternative to incarceration concerning the budget crisis would fail for lack of money.
“The promises proposed by S91 can’t be fulfilled given the current fiscal situation,” the letter said. “As implemented, the changes required by SB91 will require years before functionality. The people of Alaska are experiencing the void created between what was and what may be. However, what may be is not here yet and has no definite timeline.”
SB 54, introduced by Sen. John B. Coghill, who also introduced SB 91, rolls back major components of that legislation.
The Senate passed a 16-page first version of SB 54 in April with a vote of 19-1. SB 54 contained changes proposed by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a body with representatives of all strata of the justice system. The House did not get around to passing the bill before the end of the session.
Last month, SB 54 came up again in a special session when the legislature convened on Oct. 23. After several days of debate, the House added about 30 pages to the bill and passed it 32-8 in the wee hours of Oct. 7. The House version rolled back components of SB 91 more severely than proposed by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.
A catalog of rollbacks includes the following:
• Reinstates prison terms for second and third convictions for petty theft and holds the possibility of prison time for first-offense petty theft.
• Beefed up penalties for first-time conviction on Class C Felonies. SB 91 had reduced penalties to supervised probation rather than going too prison for as long as two years.
• Lowered theft from $1,000 to $750 to qualify as felony theft.
• Removed a two-month cap on prison time for convictions on many Class A misdemeanors, allowing a possibility of prison time of up to one year.
• Revised upward the term of incarceration for crimes against police or emergency responders.
The Senate voted to pass the same SB 54 rollbacks to SB 91 on Nov. 10 by a vote of 11-8 and adjourned.
Sending the bill to the governor’s desk and getting it signed by Walker will not necessarily bring SB 54 into effect. Before the Senate’s vote to concur with the House version, Walker’s and legislative attorneys discovered a glitch in SB 54 that could slow it down. An amendment increasing the penalties for first-time Class C felonies would match the consequences for more serious Class B felonies. That constitutes a denial of the right of due process, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Graduated sentencing ranges ensure that more serious crimes bring more serious consequences. Having a first-time Class C felony draw the same punishment as a more serious Class B felony would go against constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Defense attorneys would sue the state and ACLU would stand with them, according to Alaska ACLU statements.
“SB 54 violates Alaskans’ due process rights. If the state tries to enforce it, we’ll see them in court,” according to an Alaska ACLU declaration.