Classification of Felony Offenses
The Alaska Judicial Council (Council) recently released Alaska Felony Sentencing Patterns: 2012–2013. The report examines factors associated with felony sentences under new presumptive ranges set by the legislature in 2005 and 2006. The study has been used by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission (ACJC), established by the legislature in 2014 to make recommendations about criminal justice reform and sentencing. This brief article looks at selected findings from the report.
The goal of presumptive ranges is to decrease the likelihood of unjustified disparity in sentencing, while generally allowing some judicial discretion in the imposition of a sentence. In 2005 and 2006, the legislature significantly changed Alaska’s sentencing laws by substituting presumptive sentencing ranges for the specific presumptive sentences in effect since 1980. The legislature also extended the presumptive ranges to include all first offender Class B and C felonies, thus substantially increasing the number of offenders subject to the presumptive system. Additional legislative changes in the years between 2005 and 2012 included significant increases in the presumptive ranges for sex offenses, an increase in the types of offenses classified as felonies, and an increase in the seriousness level of classification for a number of already existing felonies. (See “Classification of Felony Offenses.”)
The report examined sentencing records for 2,970 cases, a 60 percent sample of all felonies sentenced during 2012 and 2013. The analysis included the single most serious charge identified in each case and a variety of other factors related to the sentencing. Other factors included offender demographic characteristics, location of the case in the state, seriousness of the offense, and whether the conviction was at trial or the result of a plea (Table 1).
More than half of the sample was Caucasian (58%); 28 percent was Alaska Native/American Indian; 9 percent was African American; 4 percent was Asian/Pacific Islander; and 1 percent was unknown. About one-fifth of the offenders (21%) in the sample were female. More than half (54%) of the offenders were between the ages of 16 and 30 years.
Two-thirds (67%) of the offenders in the study had no prior felony convictions. The majority of offenders (81%) were convicted of Class C felonies—the least serious offense classification (Figure 1). Just over 70 percent were convicted of nonviolent Class C felonies (e.g., property, driving, and drugs) (Figure 2).
In nearly all the cases (94%), conviction was by a plea agreement. Cases for the most serious offenses went to trial most often, however, and 55 percent of Unclassified offenses (the most serious) had been convicted after a trial.
Most offenders (79%) were sentenced to some active time of incarceration. Nearly two-thirds of offenders (61%) received sentences that included probation plus some incarceration time. In determining a sentence, a judge may hand down a Suspended Imposition of Sentence (SIS) if the offender and the offense fall under certain criteria. The SIS can specify conditions including incarceration, probation, and restitution; if the person successfully completes all of the conditions, the person is discharged and the court may set aside the conviction. In the sample examined, 15 percent of offenders received an SIS.
Regarding the most serious offenses, most offenders convicted of a sex offense received sentences of active incarceration time within or above the presumptive ranges, while more than half (51%) of offenders convicted of a Class A felony (non-sexual offense) received sentences below the presumptive ranges due to mitigating factors. The report also found sentences below presumptive ranges for 39 percent of Class B nonsexual sentences and 51 percent of Class A nonsexual offenses.
In looking at each class of felony offense (A, B, C), longer active sentences were imposed for violent offenses versus nonviolent offenses. Overall, males were more likely to receive a longer sentence than females, and males were more likely to have been convicted of a violent crime than females. Other factors that appeared to result in longer sentences included the level of violence of the offense, and prior felony convictions of the offender.
Dr. Brad Myrstol at the UAA Justice Center conducted the multivariate analysis of the data. He found that within each class of offense, A, B, and C, violent offenses received longer sentences, on average, than nonviolent offenses. Similarly, within each class of offense, offenders with prior felony convictions received longer active sentences on average than offenders with no prior convictions. The less serious the offense of which a person was convicted, the more likely it was that the sentence was associated with factors other than the nature of the offense or the offender’s prior record. These factors included case-processing factors such as type of attorney, and whether a pre-sentence report was filed, and whether a case went to trial, sometimes interacting with demographic characteristics.
The report notes that the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission recommended to the Governor and Legislature in 2015 that non-sex felony presumptive ranges be aligned with prior presumptive terms, and that the state’s prison beds be focused on “serious and violent offenders” and “higher-level drug offenders” (p. 85). The fact that the study’s data showed that some types of sentences were already often below the presumptive ranges—e.g., Class A drug offenses, Class A and Class B nonsexual offenses—suggested that current sentencing practices may already be in alignment to some degree with Commission recommendations.
A full copy of the report is available at the Alaska Judicial Council website. Appendices include mean active sentence length for each type of conviction noted in the publication, as well as a detailed history of the changes from 2000 to 2013 in felony offense definitions, classifications and sentencing statutes.
Teresa White Carns is with the Alaska Judicial Council in Anchorage and is responsible for special projects.