Prosecutor sees workaround for crime bill concerns
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — While constitutional questions swirl around a crime bill recently passed by the Alaska Legislature, the director of the state Department of Law’s criminal division thinks the courts will work out a solution.
John Skidmore said courts will find a way to interpret the law in a way that avoids constitutional issues, KTOO radio reported .
But Tara Rich, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, believes the courts will invalidate a provision dealing with Class C felonies. She also expects legal challenges if Gov. Bill Walker signs the bill, SB54, which he said he intends to do.
The bill was prompted by concerns raised by the public and law enforcement following a criminal justice overhaul passed by lawmakers last year. Critics saw the overhaul as too soft on crime.
The ACLU of Alaska had warned legislators that a provision of the bill added in the House would make presumptive sentence ranges for first-time Class C and Class B felonies the same. The group said this would violate due process requirements.
The ACLU of Alaska also said the concept of graduated offenses is to ensure more serious crimes are sentenced more harshly. Class C felonies are a lesser class of felony.
Skidmore had flagged the issue as problematic before the Senate approved the House version last week. He said Tuesday that judges could use what are known as benchmarks to avoid constitutional issues.
“Instead of the Legislature giving specific sentencing ranges, the courts step in and provide a sentencing range within what the Legislature has already given them,” he said.
Judges, for example, could set a benchmark at the low end of the range for C felonies.
Rich expects lawsuits if the bill becomes law because a lawyer for anyone charged with a first-time class C felony would seek to plea bargain, and negotiations for that plea would depend on how judges interpret the law.
The ACLU of Alaska also has concerns with a provision affecting the length of sentences for people who commit class A misdemeanors for the second time and for those who commit disorderly conduct.
Information from: KTOO-FM, http://www.ktoo.org