Alaska Senate passes crime bill, adjourns from special session

John Skidmore, director of the Criminal Division in the Department of Law, presents testimony relating to SB 54 before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. The Senate sent the bill to Gov. Bill Walker on Friday. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The state Senate adjourned from the special session today, passing one bill on the session agenda while declining to act on the other.

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Senators did act on a wide-ranging bill to scale back last year’s reductions to criminal sentences.

The Senate voted Friday to agree to the changes the House made to Senate Bill 54. It now is headed to Gov. Bill Walker’s desk.

The Senate didn’t act on a proposal by Walker to tax income from employment, intended to help close the gap between state spending and revenue.

The Senate passed the criminal justice bill 11-8, despite a series of concerns raised about the measure.

Representatives of the court system, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement questioned whether changes made by the House would withstand court challenges.

Several experts said one provision may violate offenders’ constitutional rights.

Department of Law’s Criminal Division director John Skidmore questioned the provision. It applies the same sentences to people who commit class C felonies for the first time as those who commit more serious class B felonies.

Skidmore said it would certainly face a legal challenge.

“For the C and B felonies, having them have the same sentencing range, I’m telling you, that is a problem,” Skidmore said. “That’s not just somebody saying, ‘I’m going to file a lawsuit,’ and it may or may not be frivolous. I’m telling you there’s also a legal issue there that the courts will have to resolve.”

The Senate passed a version of the bill for the first time in April.

The House made 28 amendments in committees and on the floor during the special session.

It was those amendments that troubled legal experts Friday.

Senators could have rejected the House amendments, which would have led to a conference committee to settle their differences. But the Senate decided against the move.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon said residents have called for stricter penalties. She said the law allows judges discretion to decide sentences individually.

“From a public perception, at least if you have been aggrieved, if you have had someone die close to you, if you have had someone’s, your car taken, that when it goes through a court process, the B or the C does not determine in the end the final consequence. It’s the judge,” MacKinnon said.

Bethel majority-caucus Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman opposed the House version.

“If we see something that is wrong in the bill, that’s constitutionally challenging, we should not go forward in my opinion to make that law, and then have it fixed later,” Hoffman said. “If we see that it is wrong, we as legislators should fess up and fix it.”

Quinlan Steiner leads the state Public Defender Agency. He said that the potential flaw with class C felony sentencing could lead the courts to throw it out, leading back to Senate Bill 91.

That means first-time class C felons would face suspended sentences instead of immediate jail time.

“That’s what the litigation is going to be about,” Steiner said. “It’s not speculative. It will be filed. It will be an issue in every single C felony case, until it’s resolved.”

Senators who spoke in favor of today’s bill described it as tough on crime and said a vote against it would be a step backward.

The House must adjourn by Monday or the Senate will be called back.