Senate votes to end mandatory release of low- and moderate-risk defendants

Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, chairs the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee in March. Costello proposed a change to the state’s criminal justice law that allows judges to require cash bail for low- and moderate-risk misdemeanor defendants. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The Alaska Senate voted Thursday to end a key requirement of the criminal justice reform voted into law two years ago. It would end a mandate that low- and moderate-risk misdemeanor defendants be released without posting cash bail. Judges would be able to order bail for all defendants.

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Since January, people charged with misdemeanors who were assessed as having a low or moderate risk have been released without having to post cash bail. It’s a change that was made under the 2016 law known as Senate Bill 91.

Anchorage Republican Sen. Mia Costello proposed allowing judges to require the cash bail for all defendants, not just those assessed as being high risk.

“I heard from many, many Alaskans, who said they are frustrated when the criminal who victimized them is caught only to be immediately released, and then there are additional victims,” Costello said.

The Senate voted 12 to 6 in support of Costello’s proposal. She said judges should have discretion to decide who is released without posting bail.

“Public safety is our No. 1 priority,” Costello said. “There is no other issue that I’m hearing from my constituents on that is more important than this one. Families in Alaska want to be safe and businesses want to get back to doing business, instead of fending off criminals.”

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill opposed the proposal. He noted that those charged with felonies, sex offenses or driving under the influence aren’t eligible for mandatory release. And those who violated the conditions of their release in the past also aren’t eligible.

“What we’re trying to do is actually free the judges up to deal with the people who are actually the ones who need the attention the most,” Coghill said.

Coghill said the state is already seeing benefits from the change in pretrial decisions that happened in January. Judges are required to use a tool that looks at publicly available information to score the defendant’s risk of failing to appear or commit another crime.

Coghill said that giving judges more discretion sounds good, but releasing more defendants avoids problems.

“It lets people go back to work,” Coghill said. “It actually solves a problem of not having to jail them. But it also solves a problem of not having re-criminalization become part of their life.”

It was an amendment to a larger criminal justice measure, House Bill 312.

The bill started as a measure allowing police officers to arrest people without warrants for assaults on health care providers. But the Senate added several other proposals from Gov. Bill Walker’s administration. They include allowing judges to consider defendants’ out-of-state histories in making pretrial decisions. And the attorney general would be able to schedule new street drugs using emergency regulations.

The bill heads over to the House. If the House agrees to the changes, it would go to Walker’s desk.