Governor, Anchorage DA want to see changes to new bail system
One month into using Alaska's new computer-generated bail system, Governor Bill Walker and Anchorage District Attorney Richard Allen are calling on the legislature to make revisions.
"When you pass big legislation that does a lot of things, it's not uncommon that you're going to need to make some changes once you see how it works on the ground," Allen said.
The brand new Department of Corrections Pre-Trial Enforcement Division is a delayed component of Senate Bill 91, which went into effect on January 1, 2018. The division comes with a budget for 65 armed pretrial enforcement officer positions. Officers are tasked with providing pretrial risk assessments to the courts for each person charged with a crime, then, in some cases, supervising those who are granted release before trial.
The risk assessment tool gives judges a computer-generated number between one and 10 for a defendant, which indicates they're either low-, medium- or high-risk for two factors: how likely the person is to fail to appear for future court hearings, and how likely a defendant is to commit new crimes while out on bail before trial.
For each risk factor, the algorithm uses six data points to come up with a total score, then, the higher of the two scores is what is given to judges. The data points include age at first arrest, total number of prior FTA (Failure to Appear) warrants, and whether the person is currently booked on property or motor-vehicle (non-DUI) charges.
The tool doesn't take into account factors like the nature of the current charges, a possible sentence range, potential harm to the public, weight of evidence, a defendant's ties to the community, or their personal financial resources.
"Some tweaks to this are probably in order," Allen said.
He says the risk assessment tool only considers a defendant's in-state criminal history-- an issue that has led to a few hiccups already.
For example, a woman allegedly involved in a mid-day shooting incident outside of Shockwave Trampoline Park at Northway Mall Saturday -- a popular location for families and children -- was charged with a class C felony: being a felon in possession of a firearm.
According to court documents, 26-year-old Jessica Malcolm had a Glock .45 caliber handgun and a 30-round magazine on her person but qualified for mandatory release under the new system after scoring a zero on the pretrial risk assessment.
Why? The tool only considers in-state criminal history, and Malcolm had just arrived in Alaska from California two weeks prior to the shooting.
She's since failed to appear at a scheduled court hearing on Tuesday.
"When you look at that kind of a situation, somebody who has absolutely no ties to this state, who just got here, their risk of, at a minimum, flight, is much higher than somebody who's lived their whole life in Alaska, so those are some of the things we've gotta get fixed," said Allen.
Governor Walker has submitted HB295 and SB150 this session, identical bills that would amend the system to consider out of state criminal history for defendants.
In a letter to Senate President Pete Kelly, Walker wrote, "Persons charged with certain misdemeanors and who are assessed as low to moderate risk must be released on their own recognizance or on an unsecured bond. Further, persons charged with certain class C felonies and who are assessed as low risk must also be released on their own recognizance or on an unsecured bond. The judge has no discretion to impose monetary bail in these situations."
The letter also says excluding out of state criminal history data is "problematic given Alaska's transient population, especially in the summer months".
He urged Kelly to take "prompt and favorable action" on the measure.
Allen also suggests allowing judges more discretion in cases like Malcolm's, where mandatory release might not be the best option.
"This is sort of, I think a bit of a gray area right now. If you read the black letter of the law as it is right now, and I think some judges are taking this approach that, 'Hey, my hands are tied. It says mandatory OR that means mandatory OR.' On the other hand, I think there are some judges that have kind of come in and said, 'Wait a second, this is not what the legislature intended. I have a duty to the public here, I have a duty to make sure that this person, that I'm not subjecting the public to unnecessary risk and that I can have some assurances that this person is going to show up to court.' They are imposing some bail measures, some additional steps to ensure public safety and the appearance of the defendant, so we're getting a mixed bag right now," said Allen.
KTVA also reached out to the Anchorage Police Department, as it's often tasked with making repeat arrests.
In a statement, department spokesperson Renee Oistad said, "We continue to diligently enforce the law regardless of what the consequences are for the defendant."
KTVA reached out to the Director of the DOC's Pretrial Enforcement Division, Geri Fox, for comment on this story through multiple emails sent Wednesday and Thursday, but has not yet received a response.
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