Dunleavy AG to review some post-Schneider sexual assault pleas
Gov. Mike Dunleavy's pick to lead the Alaska Department of Law said one of his first actions was to establish himself as a "filter" for plea bargains that have the potential to incite public outrage.
Attorney General Kevin Clarkson disclosed that new detail during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, as he responded to a question from Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Kenai, during the committee's first hearing on Senate Bill 23.
The measure is the first of four bills in Dunleavy's crime package that he introduced as part of his plan to address rising crime rates and public rejection of Senate Bill 91, Alaska's controversial crime reform law.
SB 23 deals with sentencing and classification of crimes and includes the following initiatives:
- Increases sentencing ranges for people convicted of drug trafficking, and makes possession of drugs a felony again.
- Increases all sentencing ranges (felony and misdemeanor) that were reduced under SB 91.
- Creates a new criminal offense of terroristic threatening, allowing law enforcement to act on threats even if they were not carried out.
- Makes removing an electronic ankle monitor a new felony offense for both pretrial defendants and sentenced offenders.
- Increases the maximum length of required probation. For sex offense cases, the length probation increases from 15 to 25 years.
At the beginning of the hearing, Committee Chair Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said the measure will be a priority.
"I also want to mention that this is a serious matter before us," she said, "and I have every intention to keep this bill moving along, but we aren’t going to rush it because we want to get it right. Alaskans deserve us to get it right."
During the 90-minute session, the committee heard from Clarkson, Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price and Corrections Commissioner Nancy Dahlstrom, all of whom make up Dunleavy's public safety team.
Clarkson said SB 91 had an impact on morale within his department.
"The 'catch and release' sort of dynamic was extremely frustrating," he explained. "Prosecutors felt deprived of the resources and tools they needed under SB 91."
Micciche asked Clarkson how he will handle plea agreements, making reference to Justin Schneider's now notorious no-jail time plea deal.
"The public’s been very frustrated with the [Department of Law's] bargaining in certain cases — some of those cases have become fairly famous, unfortunately — my question is related to the Department of Law and if there is a sort of new directive to have a higher standard in pushing harder for crimes," he said.
Micciche wondered if the department will resist reducing charges to 'the lowest possible denominator,' and instead push for more serious convictions.
"One of the first things I did was to — in discussions with my Deputy Attorney General, Rob Henderson, and (Criminal Division) Director John Skidmore — to establish my expectation that, in particular with respect to sex offenses, if there were going to be plea bargains that would reduce the penalty for the individual offender down to levels that might trigger public concern, those sorts of arrangements would were gonna have to be approved by me," said Clarkson.
Schneider entered into a plea agreement with the state in September that didn't require him to spend any additional time in jail for a brutal midday assault on an Alaska Native woman, a victim who was given no voice in the deal. National, public outrage soon followed, along with a successful campaign to oust the presiding judge.
Clarkson said he has set himself up to act as a 'filter' in an effort to avoid future outcomes similar to what Alaska saw in the wake of the Schneider case, but offered a defense for the prosecutors who handled that plea deal.
"Although that case in particular, I will say in defense of my prosecutors, was principally a problem created by the law," Clarkson said, "and the sex offense bill that you’ll be hearing about later addresses all those problems with respect to that Justin Schneider case."
Micciche appeared to be less than fully satisfied with the answer.
"We probably don’t want to have an argument right here of the fact that the second year of potential incarceration was negotiated out of that deal, so I don’t want to go that far," he responded. "I’m thrilled to hear that sexual assault cases, where they’re being plea bargained down, will end up on your desk for approval, and I think we can leave it at that."
The governor has introduced measures that would address future crimes like Schneider's by making unwanted contact with semen a sex crime, and ending the practice of allowing time spent on an electronic monitor before trial to count as credit toward an offender's sentence.
Other lawmakers have sponsored similar bills in response to the Schneider case, including Micciche, who introduced Senate Bill 12.
SB 12 would accomplish the following three objectives:
- Classify unwanted contact with semen as a sexual crime, which means perpetrators can be required to register as sex offenders for this crime;
- Require that strangulation to the point of unconsciousness is defined as assault in the first degree, which carries a sentence of 5 to 20 years; and
- Eliminate credit toward time served for electronic monitoring for sexual assault convictions.
The bill represents the legislative priorities of the No More Free Passes campaign, a local grassroots movement formed in response to the Schneider case.
The campaign posted a response to Clarkson's comments on Facebook Wednesday, saying, "This is why we protested the Schneider sentence. Because when we are loud enough, our leaders start listening."
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