The constitutionally challenged crime bill passed during the October/November special session has been quietly signed into law.
Gov. Bill Walker signed Senate Bill 54 at his office on Sunday, a spokeswoman confirmed, without the usual signing ceremony that would be expected for such a high-profile bill. The bill is a rollback of certain provisions of last year’s sweeping reform of the criminal justice system, and comes in response to a wave of public outcry over rising crime rates. The law went into effect at midnight.
Senate Bill 54 looked to be a political home run when Walker added it to the special session.
The boiling public outcry over crime would be swiftly met with tough-on-crime legislation, and everyone would get a photo opportunity with uniformed law enforcement officers at the bill signing. But that was before the Legislature got hold of the bill.
The bill that reached Walker’s desk was expanded with hastily made changes by legislators, including a legal flaw that could put tougher penalties for lower-level felonies into jeopardy (it turns out setting the same penalty for different severities of crime is probably not constitutional). The Legislature had an opportunity to fix the flaw, but the Senate brushed off the issue in its rush to flee Juneau and avoid taking up the original reason for the special session: Walker’s wages tax.
Walker said despite the concerns, he would sign the bill into law because he didn’t want to wait for the Legislature to return to fix the bill.
The ACLU of Alaska and public defenders are expected to challenge the constitutionality of the felony sentencing guidelines. The Department of Law taken the optimistic route with the concerns, with Division of Law Director John Skidmore telling KTOO that he expects the courts will fix it by instituting their own sentencing guidelines within the ranges set by the Legislature.
Now, the bill that was originally expected to be an easy win at a time the Legislature and Walker are coming up short in dealing with the state’s budget will go into law facing legal uncertainty.