Rieger, Lisa. (Winter 1992). "Sentencing Commission Releases Second Annual Report."
Alaska Justice Forum 8(4): 8-9. The Alaska Sentencing Commission was created by an act of the Alaska Legislature
to evaluate the effect of sentencing laws and practices on Alaska's criminal justice
system and to recommend improvements in criminal sentencing practices. This article
discusses the commmission's first year of work as described in its 1991 annual report
to the legislature.
According to its 1991 Annual Report, the Alaska Sentencing Commission considered several policy issues related to the
sentencing structure: 1) the possibility of restructuring the state sentencing system;
2) the terms and conditions of probation and parole; 3) treatment alternatives and
rehabilitation as sentencing goals; 4) use of intermediate sanctions and program options;
and 5) the need for a comprehensive criminal justice data base.
The Commission operates from a broad-based policy perspective, taking into consideration
the divergent attitudes of each of the departments responsible for the administration
of justice. The freedom to analyze sentencing issues using information from experts
and other states which have undertaken sentencing reform permits the Commission to
make recommendations which are considered and not merely responsive to recent highly
publicized events. The perspective of the Commission may forestall a future need for
reform of reforms.
Restructuring the Sentencing System
The Commission made no recommendations with regard to restructuring the sentencing
system. It analyzed 174 offenses listed in the Alaska codes and their presumptive
sentences according to seriousness, level of offense and typical sentence and compared
its findings with the handling of similar offenses in other states. Although the Commission
discovered some disagreement between its ranking of seriousness and the current level
of offense, the Commission did not recommend any reclassifications or changes in sentences.
However, the possibility of reclassifying or changing the definition for statutory
rape and of changing the sentences for minor drug offenses will be discussed further
In several states and under the federal sentencing system, where sentencing reform
has been implemented, elaborate grid systems have been devised to accommodate differences
in criminal history and offender characteristics so that the punishment is tailored
both to the crime and the criminal. For example, Alaska's grid system contains 20
ranges for felonies in comparison to 60 in Minnesota, 99 in Oregon and 135 in Washington
state. However, the Commission did not recommend the adoption of a more complex grid
system in Alaska, in part because of the investment already made in the current system.
The Commission felt that few problems have surfaced in Alaska, in spite of the greater
degree of flexibility given to judges in the state.
Probation and Parole
The Commission made two recommendations with regard to probation and parole issues.
First, it recommended legislation to expand immunity from liability for the state
and state employees in the release and supervision of persons in state custody who
are on parole, probation, furlough, work release, or under similar conditions of release.
The Commission recognized that difficulties with probation and parole supervision,
especially in remote villages, currently often dictates potentially inappropriate
release decisions, such as releasing someone to a "hub," rather than the village of
residence. (However, the Commission did not give its support to SB 214, which concerns
this issue, noting that legislation on this subject was "a complicated matter, involving
a number of technical legal questions with the commission has not addressed.")
The Commission also recommended that the Alaska Rules of Court be revised to give
priority to probation revocation proceedings. The Commission believes this will ameliorate
current problems of delay for offenders entering needed rehabilitation programs and
in disposing of probationer problems.
Three additional probation-parole issues were specifically designated for further
study in 1992:
- Should mandatory parole terms be lengthened?
- Should discretionary parole release be available to any presumptively sentenced offenders?
- Should the maximum term of available probation be lengthened from five to ten years?
Rehabilitation as a Sentencing Goal
The Commission evaluated treatment alternatives for certain offenders, identifying
sex offenders and substance abusers in particular as individuals for whom the twin
constitutional goals of rehabilitation and protection of the public often go hand
in hand. In these categories the potential for reoffending against the same victims—family
and friends—are great. Without treatment many offenders in these categories would
reoffend after release, rehabilitation has value "not only for the offender, but also
for the good of the victim and for society as a whole."
The Commission made a series of recommendations with regard to rehabilitation, supporting
rehabilitation as a goal of sentencing and imprisonment, and emphasizing that rehabilitation
programs must be carefully and rigorously evaluated to determine their efficacy and
viability. Finally, the Commission pointed out that such programs are only one part
of a crime prevention effort, which must be undertaken by the entire community as
well as by the criminal justice system.
Use of Intermediate Sanctions and Program Options
The costs associated with long term imprisonment for those convicted of serious felonies
and the costs and risks of the same offenders committing more offenses if they are
not incarcerated have formed the framework of a national debate. The Sentencing Commission
is collecting national studies of this issue and will continue to address cost issues
during the coming year. Although intermediate sanctions do not cost as much as imprisonment,
they still require significant expenditures if they are to be successful. The Commission
has undertaken a project with the National Institute of Corrections and the State
Justice Institute to assess the state's needs and problems in this area.
Several different intermediate sanctions and program options are currently utilized
in varying degrees in Alaska. They include: monetary options, such as fines, forfeiture
and restitution; offender monitoring and restrictions on liberty, such as electronic
monitoring, intensive supervision, and halfway houses; and shock value options, such
as short periods of incarceration designed to dissuade the new offender from committing
future offenses. The Commission recommended that the Department of Corrections expand
its use of intermediate sanctions and that the judiciary be encouraged to use intermediate
sanctions more extensively for felonies and misdemeanors, as well as for probation
and parole violations. In particular, the Commission recommended that the intermediate
sanction imposed for probation and parole violations match the nature of the violation
(e.g., for dirty drug tests, a substance abuse program, and for curfew violations,
restrictive programs such as electronic monitoring).
A Comprehensive Criminal Justice Data Base
The Sentencing Commission in 1991 addressed its own need for reliable data by beginning
to assemble a data base based on information from the three primary computer systems—OBSCIS
(Department of Corrections), PROMIS (Department of Law) and APSIN (Department of Public
Safety). (The court data system is not centralized and cannot produce much aggregate
information.) The Commission recognizes that the criminal justice data problem presents
a serious impediment to rational decision-making on criminal justice management in
Alaska. Currently, it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide the effectiveness
of one sanction over another because existing records are incomplete or fragmented.
Therefore, average sentences, amount of time served and recidivism rates cannot be
The Sentencing Commission's work highlights the importance of bringing together a
representative group of persons responsible for the administration of justice in Alaska
to consider the difficult and complicated issues elated to sentencing reform. Changes
in sentencing legislation must take into account the manystresses socriety imposes
on the criminal justice system; the product of the Sentencing Commission can advance
Lisa Rieger is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.