Walker plans to sign constitutionally flawed crime bill

(Photo by Carole Triem)

Gov. Bill Walker will sign Senate Bill 54 he said in a newsletter this morning, despite concerns that it a constitutional problem could tie up the criminal justice system.

“Senate Bill 54 as passed returns meaningful tools to judges and law enforcement to keep Alaskans safe, although it contains some issues the Legislature will need to address quickly in the near future,” he wrote.

That issue is a constitutional quandary created by an amendment adopted on the House floor that sets the same sentencing range (between zero and two years) for first-time class C felonies as first-time class B felonies, which are supposed to be much more serious crimes. The state’s legal experts, including the head of the Department of Law’s Criminal Division and the head of the Public Defender Agency, said it pretty clearly violates the constitutional guarantee for due process.

The likely outcome, said Public Defender Quinlan Steiner, is that first-time class C felony convictions will be disputed with a motion seeking to invalidate the sentencing law. The possible outcome—beyond a months-long legal challenge that will likely be decided in the Supreme Court—is that the entire rewrite of the sentencing structure for class C felonies could revert to the current law, which only has probation for first-time felonies.

Walker, like Senate leadership, seems to brush off the problems and say they’ll be swiftly fixed at the start of the regular session in January.

In all likelihood, there’s nothing that will be fast or easy about fixing the bill. Legislative veteran Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said as much during the only hearing the Senate held on the House version of Senate Bill 54.

“I don’t believe that’s ever worked in the past,” he said of such a promise to fix it in January. “If we see something that is wrong in the bill that is constitutionally challenging, we should not go forward to make that law and have it fixed later. If we see it’s wrong, we as legislators should fess up and fix it.”

Even some of the tough-on-crime legislators in the House signaled they would have liked to fix the bill before sending it to the governor.

Despite the promises to quickly fix the bill, the realities of it are far more complicated than legislators seem to think. Legislators who want to shore up their tough-on-crime bonafides will see it as another crack at rolling back Senate Bill 91, so in its rush to get passed and signed will likely pick up a few riders that could complicate and slow the bill.

There’s also the matter of just what a fix would look like. The Legislature could retroactively reduce the penalty for first-time class C felonies, but that could draw increased outcry from the tough-on-crime public. It could also try to retroactively increase the penalties for the supposedly more serious class B felonies, but the state’s legal heads suggested such a move would present its own legal problems.

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