Sweeping criminal justice overhaul under fire — and revision

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, at a Senate Majority press availability, March 21, 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Legislators are considering changes to a seven-month-old law that overhauled the criminal justice system. The commission that helped shape the law has recommended 14 changes to it.

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The law allowed some low-risk offenders to avoid jail time. And it made other changes in sentencing, bail and probation that are aimed at reducing the number of repeat offenders.

Critics say the law is allowing some people charged with serious crimes to be released the same day they’re arrested.

The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission recommended a series of changes Monday. It suggested that some felony convictions currently receiving suspended sentences should instead lead to up to 90 days in jail.

Sen. John Coghill helped write the law. The North Pole Republican said the Senate Judiciary Committee is trying to strike a balance in revising the law.

“I think we’re going to drill down pretty well in our committee, find what is the real public safety problem,” Coghill said. “Can we give the police tools, can we give the law tools to actually hold people accountable — so that when, whatever society dishes up, we can hold people accountable?”

Other recommendations in the report include correcting what the commission called an “apparent oversight” that eliminated a legal provision requiring sex offenders to serve probation. The commission recommended requiring mandatory probation for sex offenders.

The commission reached a consensus on the recommendations that became the basis for the law last year. But that consensus has been tough to find this year, with some commission members calling for restoring tougher penalties than most commission members recommend. The only time they reached a consensus this year was a recommendation to make technical changes to the law.

Anchorage Sen. Kevin Meyer, a Republican, said the recommendation on giving 90 days to Class C felons appears to be too soft.

“I think we have to keep in mind the victim,” Meyer said. “I know if someone was threatening me with a gun, I wouldn’t want just a slap on the wrist.”

Critics of the law have linked it to a rise in some crimes in parts of the state.

But Coghill said the sweeping nature of the law has focused public attention on it.

“So it’s not surprising that people would blame that when there was a failure in public safety or our ability to hold people accountable,” Coghill said. “But it just simply isn’t true that it’s the cause of all failures in our system.”

Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat, said he doesn’t want to amend the law based on what he says may be “knee-jerk” reactions. He said any changes should be based on evidence from Alaska and other states.

“If just the penalties we have in the bill work and people are getting rehabilitated, then that’s certainly something I’d want to know,” Wielechowski said. “And by the same token, if it’s not working, if people are getting off and committing other crimes, then I certainly want to know that as well.

Coghill said some of the pushback to law was political, while other concerns were due to unrelated factors that predated the law, such as the ongoing opioid addiction epidemic. He said tight budgets in the Department of Law and local police departments also have caused problems, as has a separate change in bail schedules made by the court system.

“Yes, there’s been pushback,” Coghill said. “So what we tried to do is we tried to figure out what pushback is political, what is misinformation, what is a timeline problem, and what is a real public safety problem.”

Coghill is a nonvoting member of the commission. He plans to use the commission’s recommendations to draft potential changes to the law, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will discuss in the coming weeks.

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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