Criminal justice bill amended to reduce benefits to sex offenders

Senators have amended a bill that would overhaul Alaska’s criminal justice system, taking steps that makes it more difficult for those convicted of sex crimes from benefiting from the bill’s provisions.

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

Senate Bill 91 is aimed at reducing recidivism, as well as the state’s prison costs. It would divert people charged with nonviolent offenses into alternatives to jail. And it would create a re-entry program to improve prisoners’ chances of success.

But victims’ rights advocates had raised concerns. The Senate Finance amended the bill to make it harder for sex offenders to benefit. They wouldn’t be eligible for some of the reduced sentences available to other offenders.

Bill sponsor Sen. John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said he understood why the changes were made.

“The Department of Law, the public defenders, the victims’ advocates group have all had a huge say in it,” Coghill said. “The police, who have to hold people accountable in a very, very dangerous circumstance – the way we deal with drugs – all came to the table. And I think, hammered out a better way of doing it than we’re doing it now.”

He added that he’s hopeful that the bill will make Alaska safer.

One amendment removed people found guilty of criminally negligent homicide from the group who would have their sentencing guidelines reduced. Some deaths resulting from drunk driving are examples of criminally negligent homicides.

But the Finance Committee voted 5 to 2 to drop another amendment that would require drug tests to receive public assistance.

Coghill said he believes the amendments increase the likelihood that the bill will become law, by addressing the concerns of its critics. He says alternative programs to jail will prove their value over time.

“Jail time is thought more highly of than some of the programs. And I think we just have to prove that – time over time – it’s going to show that programs can change some people’s behavior,” Coghill said. “But it’s also going to show that jail time is the way the public condemns certain issues. And I think that came very, very clear through the process.”

The Finance Committee could vote to send the bill to the full Senate as soon as Wednesday.