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Oct. 28, 2016

This article looks at some of the criminal justice reforms being proposed in Alaska, including reduced sentences.

State lawmakers are moving forward with sweeping criminal justice reforms, albeit with some amendments, according to KTUU News. Senate Bill 91, which would reduce sentences for many nonviolent criminal offenses, reduce the population of pretrial inmates and focus on programs that prevent recidivism, is largely designed to tackle the problem of Alaska's increasingly crowded and costly prison system. The bill continues to move through the legislature and, if passed, would bring about important changes for many people accused of a criminal offense.

Need for reform

In December, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission released its report into how to reduce the state's prison population in the face of a serious state budgetary shortfall. According to the Alaska Dispatch News, the commission noted that implementing its recommendations would save the state $424 million and reduce the daily prison population by 21 percent over the next ten years. Without serious criminal justice reform, Alaska's prisons are expected to reach capacity by 2017.

The report's recommendations, many of which are in SB 91, include reducing some nonviolent drug misdemeanors to citations, basing pretrial release decisions on the defendant's likelihood to attend hearings or reoffend (as opposed to simply his or her ability to pay a bond), creating a specialty parole option for older, long-term inmates, and prioritizing prison space for violent, high-risk offenders as opposed to low-level, nonviolent ones.

Amendments added

While many of those recommendations have been included in SB 91, the bill is going through changes as it works its way through the legislature. A number of significant amendments were added to the bill recently. For example, while many nonviolent drug offenses will be eligible for reduced sentences, early release for sex offenders and those convicted of domestic violence have been removed from the bill.

Furthermore, the bill was changed to prevent reduced sentencing from being applied retroactively to people already in prison. Additionally, proposed maximum probation periods have also been changed, ranging now from two years for misdemeanors to 10 years for unclassified felonies. Despite the amendments, supporters of the bill say the proposed legislation will still be effective at reducing both the prison population and recidivism rates.

Criminal defense

As Alaska's criminal laws go through some major changes, it is more important than ever before for those facing a criminal charge to get help as soon as possible. Charges need to be taken seriously, especially since a conviction can result in both short- and long-term consequences, including prison, fines, and a criminal record. A criminal defense attorney with both extensive experience and knowledge of ongoing legal changes will be in the best position to help defendants understand their rights and fight against whatever charges they are facing.