Crime bill's treatment of Alaska probation violators criticized

Under the current language, a technical violation would be punished with three days in jail

Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — The director of the criminal division for the Alaska Department of Law testified Thursday that a bill to overhaul the state's justice system could limit a judge's discretion in punishing criminals for parole or probation violations.

As lawmakers on a Senate State Affairs committee scrambled to review changes to the sweeping criminal justice bill, John Skidmore and other division directors said the bill's wide-ranging effects could have unintended consequences.

"There are probably some places that have yet to be ironed out," said Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, and the bill's sponsor.

Criminal Division Director John Skidmore said that parts of the bill that cap the amount of time an offender can serve on a technical violation of probation may not be proportional to the violation.

Technical violations are violations of probation during which no new crime occurs. They cover vastly disparate issues from getting kicked out of a sex-offender treatment program to missing an appointment with a probation officer. In its criticism of the bill, the state's Office of Victim's Rights pointed out that a child molester, on probation and ordered not to have contact with kids, found on a home visit to be naked in a room with a child would fall under the technical violation portion of the probation laws.

"There's a lot of difference between treatment and forgetting to do your address change," said Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak. Stoltze chairs the committee, and his office drafted several of the 31 revisions reviewed during the hearing.

Under the current language, a technical violation would be punished with three days in jail for a first offense, five for a second and 10 for a third.

Skidmore said state prosecutors have said they are concerned about applying a one-size punishment for offenses than can be of varying degrees of seriousness.

"It would fail to allow a judge to take into consideration the underlying offense, the type of violations that has occurred, the number of violations that have occurred," Skidmore said. "The policy question that's left to you all is whether or not you think this is an appropriate restriction on discretion of judges."

The most common probation violations, or 28 percent, are rule violations, such as changing a residence without prior approval from a probation officer, according to data from the Department of Corrections. Those types of violations are followed closely by violations like using marijuana or being discharged from sex-offender or substance-abuse treatment programs, which make up about 26 percent of all probation violations.

Dean Williams, the recently appointed commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said the crime bill could be an important part of his strategy for reform within the state's corrections system.

The state's prison population has grown three times faster than the resident population in the last decade, according to a state criminal justice commission report released last year. In 2014, the state housed more than 5,200 inmates and spent more than $327 million. Absent reform, according to the report, Alaska will surpass its current prison-bed capacity by 2017.

"We need this bill and all your good, hard work. It means a lot," Williams said.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press

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