First-time offenders get second chance under new criminal justice reform law

The criminal justice reform bill recently signed into law is intended to save money and reduce the state’s prison population by eliminating the factors that contribute to recidivism, or the revolving door of offenders repeatedly returning to prison.

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A defendant confers with his court-appointed defense attorney during an arraignment at the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau. (Photo by Matt Miller, KTOO - Juneau)
A defendant confers with his court-appointed defense attorney during an arraignment at the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau. (Photo by Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau)

The measure includes a small tweak to current law that allows non-violent and low-risk offenders to quickly get back on their feet.

Tucked inside the mammoth bill were a few small sections that adds an SEJ, or suspended entry of judgement as a form of deferred prosecution. An SEJ will likely be imposed for those first offenders who have a high likelihood of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Quinlan Steiner is head of the Public Defender’s Office and a member of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, the panel that developed a series of recommendations that became the foundation of Senate Bill 91.

“That has to be a negotiated plea agreement,” Steiner said. “That can only be done with the agreement of the prosecution.”

After a guilty plea, an offender who agrees to an SEJ may serve a little jail time – if at all, and be ordered to undergo treatment, pay restitution and fines, and spend time on probation instead of a longer prison sentence. If they successfully follow through, then it could mean a brand new start with a clean slate. The case would be dismissed.

“Because the conviction would have never entered, never formally entered and then the plea withdrawn,” Steiner said.

The concept of deferred prosecution is not new. Former Alaska Supreme Court Justice Alexander Bryner said they revised Alaska’s criminal code in the 1980s. New statutes modeled after other laws allowed for a suspended imposition of sentence or SIS. It’s similar to the new SEJ, but only the sentence is suspended. The former defendant would still have a conviction of record.

Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. (Photo by Lisa Phu, KTOO - Juneau)
Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. (Photo by Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau)

An SIS is usually imposed in cases in which youthful, first-time offenders are charged with a low-level property crime, and it’s not available for driving under the influence and some crimes against another person, like domestic violence.

“There were individual cases in which there were complaints about leniency, but overall I think that judges statewide were pretty good about reserving those kind of sentences for truly deserving people where in many, many cases the prosecution wouldn’t oppose,” Bryner said.

SIS’s are not uncommon.  According to statistics provided by the Alaska Court System, as many as 4-percent of felony offenders and 2-percent of those charged with misdemeanors each year may receive an SIS. That may not sound like much. But that’s between 700 and a thousand people each year who not serving their time in a prison cell. And, with costs up to 158-dollars a day for each inmate (according to a 2015 report on recidivism), that could be as much as $40 million dollars a year that is not being spent for incarcerating low-level or low-risk offenders.

When imposing an SIS, a judge may tell a defendant that their case will be set aside. Early on, that may have been misunderstood as the case going away or being expunged from criminal records. That’s not true.

Steiner described what “set aside” really means.

“It just doesn’t serve as a prior conviction for presumptive sentencing purposes, but it can be considered as a prior event in your criminal history,” Steiner said.

And because there’s still a conviction of record, the case would still show up in CourtView, the court system’s online database.

Entrance to one of the courtrooms in the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau. (Photo by Matt Miller, KTOO - Juneau)
Entrance to one of the courtrooms in the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau. (Photo by Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau)

Tom Wagner, a Juneau attorney who works on contract as a public defender for city misdemeanor cases, said that was a problem for former offenders really making an effort to get back on their feet.

“When they’re vetting candidates for a job, rather than paying to get a rapsheet from the Department of Public Safety which would say “conviction set aside,” employers would go to Courtview and see that the person had a theft conviction and decide not to hire them,” Wagner said.

Wagner recalled one specific example of a former client dealing with prospective employer.

“It was a gray area there,” Wagner said. “I had one person who lost their job with the state because they had claimed on their employment application that they had no convictions. And then, they found out that they had.”

In another example, a Kenai woman expected she could apply for a nurse’s aide certification after receiving an SIS for forgery and theft and the conviction was set aside in 2003. But the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the Board of Nursing’s denial. She was still convicted of a crime. There was also too much similarity in the relationship she had with the vulnerable victims of her earlier crimes and the relationship she would have with her prospective patients.

Justice Bryner wrote the partial dissent in that case, saying he wasn’t satisfied with how the board reached its decision.

“The issue in cases of this kind never arises except for people who have successfully done what they were supposed to do, who have completed everything, and who have successfully established that they are capable of being reformed and not recidivating,” Bryner said.

Justice Bryner also served on the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission which determined that publicizing records for those with an SIS could negatively affect their ability to obtain housing, assistance, or a good job. Unemployment and lack of stable housing have been identified as major factors contributing to recidivism, or offenders quickly reoffending and returning to prison.

View of the jury box in one of the courtrooms in the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau. (Photo by Matt Miller, KTOO - Juneau)
View of the jury box in one of the courtrooms in the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau. (Photo by Matt Miller, KTOO – Juneau)

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March, North Pole Senator John Coghill explained that on-line court records will be removed for those who complete treatment programs, serve their time, and satisfy conditions of the SEJ, or suspended entry of judgement.

“It’s going to be on Courtview while it’s active,” Coghill said. “That was something that the Office of Victim’s Rights wanted also. Just like many other things, once that judgement is satisfied, then you pull the shade down.”

Under a separate bill signed into law this year, Courtview records are removed in cases in which charges are dropped or dismissed, or the defendant is acquitted at trial. But case files at the courthouse or the microfilm archives would not be affected and they would remain intact.

Coghill was one of the Legislature’s representatives to the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and the lawmaker who sheparded Senate Bill 91 through the legislative process last session. The bill grew to 123 pages before it was signed into law by Governor Bill Walker July 15.

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Related reading: Expungement and Limiting Public Access to Alaska Criminal Case Records in the Digital Age from the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center.