New law aims to make state safer

ACLU expects defense attorneys to challenge measure’s constitutionality

Gov. Bill Walker has signed into law Senate Bill 54, saying it helps to build a safer Alaska, but at the same time acknowledging that the legislation faces legal challenges.

Still, the governor called the legislation “an important first step in returning some important tools to the law enforcement community.”

The bill was effective on Nov. 17, the day after Walker signed it.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska says legal challenges, which they expect to be filed quickly, could focus on whether one provision was unconstitutional.

Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, said Senate Bill 54 does many good things, including toughening up penalties for theft and other crimes that are making Alaskans feel less safe in their homes and businesses.

“The bill gives law enforcement many of the tools they asked for to respond to the current crime wave, and it sends a clear message that criminal behavior in Alaska will not go unpunished,” he said.

Still Edgmon said he, like many of his colleagues, “is troubled by the bill’s constitutional issue, which the Legislature could have remedied had the Senate been willing to convene a conference committee.”

Major points of the legislation involve Class C felonies, theft in the fourth degree, violating conditions of release, mandatory probation for sex offenders and sex trafficking adjustments.

SB 54 changes presumptive sentencing ranges, with first time offenses changed from a probationary sentence to terms of up to two years in jail. Sentences for second felony offenses would increase from one to three, to one to four years. Third class C felony sentences would remain the same.

SB 54 created a new graduated sentencing structure for theft of property valued at less than $250, with the court authorized to sentence a person to up to five days in jail, up to 10 days in jail for a second conviction and up to 15 days for a third conviction. On a fourth conviction, the offense is now upgraded to a class A misdemeanor, which under most circumstances would be punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

SB 54 returned to a misdemeanor violation of conditions of release, which is now punishable by up to five days in jail, and also reestablished, a mandatory period of probation for sex offenders.

The statutes were also amended by SB 54 to assure those profiting from other sex workers can be held accountable as sex traffickers.

According to ACLU of Alaska attorney Tara Rich, the ACLU considers unconstitutional the section that says people arrested for committing class C felonies for the first time face the same range of sentences as those charged with more serious class B felonies.

“If there’s no rational basis for the Legislature to completely fail to distinguish between these two separate levels of crimes, then it will be struck down as violating due process rights,” Rich told Alaska Public Media earlier.