Given the reported high rates of recidivism for Alaska offenders and the upwards trajectory of prison costs, Alaska's state legislative leadership is urgently seeking alternatives to current criminal sentencing law and practices. With interest piqued by the "Right on Crime" and other states' initiatives for more cost-effective approaches to incarceration, Senate Majority Leader and Judiciary Committee Chair John Coghill led a bipartisan effort this past legislative session (2013-2014) to enact some reforms through an omnibus crime bill, Senate Bill 64. In addition to reforms relating to a number of criminal justice system issues (see sidebar on page 12), SB 64 also created and charged a new entity, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, with evaluating and making recommendations "for improving criminal sentencing practices and criminal justice practices, including rehabilitation and restitution." Over a three-year period the Commission is mandated to meet at least quarterly and submit an annual report of its activities to the governor and the legislature. The report may include "recommendations for legislative and administrative action." A separate special report on AS 28 alcohol-related offenses is to be submitted to the governor and the legislature by July 1, 2017 and must include evaluation of specific issues and recommendations (see below). The Alaska Judicial Council will be responsible for staff and administrative support for the Commission.
In seeking the passage of SB 64 before the Senate on April 22, 2014, Coghill explained the need for a critical evaluation of current laws and practice. Coghill explained, "We have become very prescriptive in our laws. But they are sometimes prescriptive in a way that doesn't mesh real well with [the goals here]. We still want people to be accountable for any crime they do, but the rigidity [in those laws] â€¦ has to be looked at." Noting that "Just putting people in jail doesn't make Alaska safer, especially if you turn them out of jail with no avenue of success," Coghill said that the Commission should "look at the array of programs, talk to people, [and] come back to us with recommendations. " Coghill has emphasized, "I just have to believe we will see a shift in Alaska that will make us safer, [and] â€¦ keep people accountable at less cost to the state."
SB 64 passed unanimously in both the Senate and House, and was signed by Governor Sean Parnell on July 16, 2014. At that time, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission sprang into existence. Its future commissioners (soon to be named) will include the following (or their designees): the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, two other state court judges, a representative of the Alaska Native community, the attorney general, the public defender, the commissioners of the Department of Public Safety and of the Department of Corrections, the executive director of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, a municipal law enforcement representative, a victims' advocate, and two ex officio members of the legislature. The voting commissioners and the two ex officio Legislative members have from June 30, 2014-June 30, 2017 to accomplish their mandate.
SB64 outlines specific issues the Commission is to consider in the formulation of its evaluation and recommendations regarding the "effect of sentencing laws and criminal justice practices on the criminal justice system." These include considering:
- statutes, court rules, and court decisions relevant to criminal justice sentencing;
- the sentencing practices of the judiciary, including the use of presumptive sentencing, and the means of promoting uniformity, proportionality, and accountability in sentencing;
- crime and incarceration rates, including the rate of violent crime and the abuse of controlled substances, in Alaska compared to other states, and best practices adopted by other states that have proven to be successful in reducing recidivism;
- whether state agency and correctional resources are sufficient to administer the criminal justice system of the state;
- alternatives to traditional forms of incarceration including measures promoting rehabilitation and restitution;
- the adequacy, availability, and effectiveness of treatment and restitution programs;
- the relationship between sentencing priorities and correctional resources;
- the effectiveness of the state's current methodologies for collection and dissemination of criminal justice data; and
- the appropriateness of schedules for controlled substances in AS11.71.140-11.71.190.
July 1, 2017 is the deadline for the Commission to submit a special report on AS 28 alcohol-related offenses. The report must include recommendations on:
- whether a revision of AS 28 is needed;
- whether both the administrative and court license revocation processes should be maintained;
- whether ignitions interlock devices are effective;
- whether the various penalties for offenses of driving under the influence of an alcoholic beverage, inhalant, or controlled substance and refusal to submit to a chemical test should be increased or decreased;
- whether programs promoting offender accountability are effective in reducing recidivism; and
- whether limited licenses should be available for persons charged with or convicted of offenses of driving while under the influence of alcohol, inhalants, or controlled substances or refusal to submit to a chemical test.
As part of its process of making recommendations on "possible approaches to sentencing and administration of justice in the state," the Commission is to follow a methodology outlined in SB64. Key points in the methodology include soliciting and considering information and views from a broad variety of constituencies and basing recommendations on 12 factors. The factors cover a broad range from consideration of the seriousness of an offense, the need to rehabilitate, the need to confine offenders to prevent harm to the public, the elimination of unjustified disparity in sentencing, and the effects of criminal justice laws and practices on reducing recidivism to peer reviewed and data-driven research and the effectiveness of evidence-based restorative-justice initiatives.
Mary Geddes is the project attorney for the newly established Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.