Victims’ rights advocates push for changes to criminal justice bill

Blind Lady Justice with scales
(Creative Commons photo by Marc Treble)

Victim’s rights advocates and some legislators have raised concerns about a bill that would overhaul Alaska’s criminal justice system.

The measure would reduce arrests and prison time for nonviolent offenses. It also would help prisoners re-enter society.

The bill has a lot of bipartisan support. It draws on recommendations from the 13-member Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. It spent more than a year considering ways to reduce recidivism and take pressure off of the need to build more prisons.

North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill sponsored the bill. He said the legislation would reduce the state’s prison population by 21 percent over the next 10 years, saving the state more than $400 million.

Coghill also has worked to include input from victim’s rights advocates, who are worried the the reforms benefit offenders at victims’ expense.

Emily Haynes testified in Juneau that a man who sexually assaulted her could be released soon due to the bill. That’s because he accepted a plea bargain that reduced the severity of his conviction.

“I oppose this bill. It’s going to have a direct impact on my life,” Haynes said. “Five years ago I was a victim of a violent sexual assault and the offender will be eligible for release immediately under your proposal. For the past five years, I’ve been fighting this case.”

And Butch Moore of Anchorage asked that the bill require those convicted of murder to have minimum sentences at least as long as those convicted of rapes. His daughter was killed in 2014.

The bill prevents those convicted of sex crimes and domestic violence offenses from being released early.

Sen. Bill Stoltze
Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee. (Photo by Kyle Schmitz/360 North)

Chugiak Republican Sen. Bill Stoltze supported more changes to the bill at a recent hearing.

While the commission included a police officer and heard testimony from victims’ rights advocates and corrections officers, Stoltze said law enforcement and victims didn’t have enough input on the legislation. He chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee.

“Well, I think the rights of victims have been improved,” Stoltze said. “I don’t think they were really that well considered through the commission process. I think they were invited but not that welcomed there. And the Office of Victim Rights, which has very in-depth expertise, really didn’t get meaningful input until the bill got to this committee.”

The Senate State Affairs Committee amended the bill to require the Department of Corrections notify victims of offenders who are eligible for release under the bill. The committee made a series of amendments and voted to advance the bill.

Supporters of the legislation have credited the Pew Charitable Trusts with providing much of the research and national expertise that supported the commission’s work.

But Stoltze said the nonprofit foundation has had too much influence over the bill.

“I haven’t fallen under the talismanic influences of the Pew Charitable Trusts,” he said. “I am interested in the fiscal savings. But I think the public has not been well enough informed of the details about that crime bill.”

But supporters of reform are concerned that some of the changes are weakening the bill.

Grace Singh, assistant to the president at the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, criticizes a provision that requires that those who’ve had their convictions suspended still have their charges listed on the CourtView website.

“This significantly discourages self-sufficiency, and it puts them in a more desperate position, which will not discourage crime or recidivism,” Singh said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear the bill next.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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