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State changes its policy on plea deals

Posted: July 25, 2013 - 12:12am

ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Department of Law has announced it will no longer negotiate plea deals for lesser sentences for individuals accused of serious crimes and domestic violence.

The new policy, which took effect Tuesday, follows a state review that found prosecutors made an inappropriately light plea agreement in 2009 with Jerry Active, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Active currently stands accused in the deaths of an Anchorage couple earlier this year.

Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny said the Active case factored in to the decision to announce the new policy now, though the change has been under consideration by the department for more than a year. Also factoring in was Gov. Sean Parnell’s “Choose Respect” campaign, aimed at cracking down against domestic violence and sexual assault. A spokeswoman said he worked closely with the department on the change.

“We feel the policy will better protect victims and ensure perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes,” Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said.

Attorney General Michael Geraghty, in June, announced that prosecutors had made an inappropriately lenient plea agreement with Active in a 2009 case after failing to recognize he had already been convicted of a felony. A judge and the Department of Corrections did not catch the mistake.

The new policy will prohibit plea bargains involving sentences for the most serious classes of felonies and cases involving sexual assault, sexual abuse of a minor and domestic violence, Svobodny said.

Prosecutors will be allowed to offer defendants the opportunity to be charged with a less serious crime but can’t offer a deal that would change the length of a sentence. That will be left to a judge. Svobodny said the idea is that judges — not prosecutors or defense attorneys — should determine sentences.

Some attorneys said the policy could result in more defendants going to trial, creating new costs for prosecution and incarceration. Similar predictions were made after Alaska’s then-attorney general, in 1975, banned all forms of plea bargaining. A 1977 Alaska Judicial Council study found that dire predictions of the change overloading the system didn’t come true, though immediately following the ban, misdemeanor trials rose substantially.

A council study from 1990 found the practice of offering plea agreements was common again, after the ban had eroded.

Anchorage defense attorney Chester Gilmore said plea agreements aren’t always appropriate but prosecutors and defendants in many cases agree they are the best way to fairly and quickly resolve a case.

He said the policy change will obviously have an impact on the courts. But he also said sentencing decisions should be returned to judges.

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