Legislature fast tracks prison bill

The measure allows Alaska judges more flexibilty in sentencing convicted felons

Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Lawmakers are speeding through the Legislature prison sentencing revisions that will bring Alaska into compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutional rights of defendants.

The Senate on Monday passed a bill that would trade in set, or presumptive, sentences for sentence ranges for felony convictions.

After the Senate passed the bill, Democratic Sen. Hollis French of Anchorage filed a motion to reconsider it. The Senate will decide whether to take up the bill again on Wednesday. If not, the bill goes to the House, where a version was heard in committee Monday.

Sen. Ralph Seekins, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says the bill adjusts Alaska law to conform to the Supreme Court's ruling in Blakely v. Washington.

In that decision, the court said only a jury can increase a sentence above the term set by statute, not a judge.

In Alaska, a judge can determine whether aggravating factors can be applied to the length of a sentence.

The 5-4 Supreme Court decision last June left Alaska, Washington and several other states trying to understand its effects and scrambling to change their laws.

Under the Senate bill, judges would have more flexibility in sentencing convicted felons without going above the range, making Alaska's sentencing structure fit with the Blakely decision, supporters said.

For example, the set term for a first-degree sexual assault in Alaska is eight years. Under the Senate bill, a judge would be able to sentence a person convicted of sexual assault to a term ranging from eight to 12 years.

"This bill has gone through two extensive hearings in the Judiciary Committee and we believe it's good public policy," Seekins said from the Senate floor.

The bill also would limit the ability of judges to impose periodic sentences - where an offender can leave prison and then return - and would allow a probation officer to impose additional conditions on a released prisoner with the court's approval.

The House also plans to put the bill on a fast track because of the need of Alaska to comply with the court's ruling, Republican leaders said.

"I think you'll see us take it up with the same fervor," House Majority Leader John Coghill said.

The Senate vote was 16-1, with Sen. Donald Olson voting against the measure. The Nome Democrat said he was not against the bill, but believed it deserved a closer look in the Senate Finance Committee, where it did not receive a hearing because it is not thought to cost anything.

If the changes mean increased prison sentences, it will end up costing the state, Olson said before voting against the bill.

Trial lawyers' reactions to the bill were negative, saying the purpose of the Supreme Court decision was not to increase sentences but to define a constitutional right of a defendant.

"I see it as opportunism to increase sentences, I don't see it any other way," Anchorage attorney Sidney Billingslea told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

• The bills are Senate Bill 56 and House Bill 78.

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