One man working to give judges the authority to sentence people to a life of sobriety said he knows his proposal won't go quietly through the system.
"Anytime you talk about taking away something from people that's widely construed as a social norm - for the rest of their lives - it's going to raise eyebrows," said Dave Stancliff, the legislative assistant assigned to Alaska Senate Bill 284. If passed, it would authorize judges to ban alcohol consumption for life among violent felons.
The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said that instead of the state passing another law to tell people what not to do, it should go back to funding programs aimed at fighting the problem.
"This highlights one of the big problems we have with the corrections system," Michael Macleod-Ball said, charging that the Murkowski administration has "gutted" rehabilitation programs.
Programs have been cut to treat sex offenders, drug abusers and alcohol abusers, he said, leading to more public safety issues when inmates are released. In addition, he also questioned the standards by which judges would oppose a lifetime alcohol ban, as well as the potential for creating disproportionate sentences.
The bill was introduced last week and referred to the Judiciary and Finance committees.
Its sponsor, Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, said a lifetime ban would be extreme, but the legislation would offer judges an option that might benefit the community.
"For some people, alcohol triggers a violent nature that otherwise does not exist," he said. When extreme crimes against persons occur as a result, extreme mitigation measures may be needed to prevent repeat offenses."
Stancliff said the issue has been raised before in Alaska. He was working with lawmakers in 1987 when a similar bill "stalled out" at the end of the session. A major target for opposition in that legislation doesn't exist in SB 284, he said. There aren't any penalties proposed for people who provide alcohol to those sentenced to a lifetime ban.
As SB 284 currently stands, it would allow judges to order a lifetime alcohol-consumption ban on people convicted of felonies against other people - from third-degree assault to first-degree murder. That range of crimes carries maximum prison sentences of five to 99 years.
"Public safety is at the heart of this legislation," Therriault said. "But it also gives offenders an incentive to never again use a substance that turns them into a ticking time bomb that they cannot control."
A person sentenced to a lifetime alcohol ban who later is convicted of drinking would be guilty of a misdemeanor that could lead to a year in jail, according to the text of the bill. Subsequent convictions would be felonies, each of which could lead to five-year prison sentences.
Convicted felons serving on probation after their incarceration commonly face a ban on alcohol consumption. A standard condition prohibits them from going to bars or liquor stores. Violators face the potential of prison time and fines that were suspended from their original sentence.
Stancliff said the legislation wouldn't prevent people sentenced to the ban from going to bars and liquor stores. But the fact that felons get into more trouble after they're off probation and beyond the alcohol prohibition shows that a lifetime ban could do some good, he said.
The possibility of a lifetime alcohol ban also could serve as an incentive for some to drink responsibly, Stancliff said. And rather than simply creating a new crime that someone could commit, the bill, as he sees it, could help prevent more serious crimes.
If an alcohol-banned felon returns home and starts drinking again, fearful family members or friends would be able to notify police before the drinking leads to something more serious.
"Police wouldn't have to wait for a violent crime to occur to arrest him," Stancliff said.
Macleod-Ball said the ACLU sees a big problem with the standard the judge would use to impose the proposed ban. Requiring only "clear and convincing evidence" for the ban could be unconstitutional, he said.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the last year or so seem to say that enhancements to sentences need to be proven according to the same standards used to prove the underlying crime, which would be proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."
The wide range of crimes the ban could apply to also would leave the possibility for disproportionate sentences, Macleod-Ball said.
"A lifetime obligation may not be proportional to the crime committed," he said. He doesn't see any mechanism in the legislation to see that it is, he added.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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