Chief Justice rips state's sentencing guidelines

Juneau-based justice tell Legislature new 'smart justice' strategies are needed

The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court told the Alaska Legislature the state’s judges would like to be able to help them reduce prison costs and protect the public, but the Legislature won’t let them.


“Under our state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines, in place since 1978, the judge’s role in sentencing is really quite limited, the range of most sentences is prescribed by law,” Walter “Bud” Carpeneti said.

He addressed a joint session of the House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday, and told the legislators new studies are showing how recidivism can be reduced and keep people out of prison.

Tough early action when those on probation miss appointments or fail drug tests is just one example, he said.

An aggressive stance there has resulted in studies showing that drug use by probationers had dropped from 25 percent to 10 percent, he said.

“It really looks like it is paying off,” he said.

Most sentences are not decided by judges, he said, but are plea bargains between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“Judges today are rarely called on to participate in the sentencing process,” Carpeneti said.

“In the vast majority of cases they simply approve or disapprove a sentence,” he said.

While judges technically have the authority to reject a plea agreement that is rarely done. Only about 5 percent of all cases wind up without a plea bargain, he said.

“Open sentencing, where the prosecution and the defense have not agreed on the ultimate sentence in advance is quite rare,” he said.

Even in those cases, the presumptive sentences mandated by the Legislature narrow the judges’ role in the process, he said.

“Sometimes it resembles following an elaborate cookbook more than anything else,” he said.

That’s resulted in too many people in prisons when there might be better options, he said. The state’s prison population is heavily young, male and of color, and results in many people spending their formative years in prison when it would be better to have many of them in their communities.

“Too many of Alaska’s young men, particularly our young men of color, are spending their early adulthoods in our prison system,” he said.

“Their futures are being shaped not by the normative influences of their families and their homes and their communities, but by the rules and rituals of life behind bars,” he said. “As years go by they’ll be less and less able to function as productive citizens.”

Under the current system, Anchorage and Southeast have the state’s highest recidivism numbers in the state. Statewide, about two-thirds re-offend, he said.

The state needs to be ready to use new techniques to identify the most likely candidates for success after prison, he said.

“Today we have scientific corrections research that shows us what intervention strategies work best,” he said.

Because of presumptive sentencing rules, judges can’t use that knowledge to prevent future crimes and reduce prison costs, he said.

What the state needs, he said, is “smart justice.”

While it sounds good to say, “if you can do the crime, you can do the time,” and while that sentiment may have even made sense decades ago, more is known now about how to prevent future crimes.

Judges are a valuable resource, and they can and should play a strong role in implement smart justice principles, he said.

“If we are ever to turn the tide of recidivism we must make room in the sentencing process for smart justice principles to take hold,” Carpeneti said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at


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