Legislature(2003 - 2004)
05/08/2003 09:00 AM FIN
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
CS FOR SENATE BILL NO. 85(STA) "An Act relating to sentencing and to the earning of good time deductions for certain sexual offenses." This was the first hearing for this bill in the Senate Finance Committee. Co-Chair Wilken stated this bill "increases the penalties for repeat sex offenders. In addition repeat sex offenders are not eligible to reduce their prison time for good time behavior." Co-Chair Wilken noted new fiscal notes were submitted for this legislation. SENATOR HOLLIS FRENCH, sponsor, testified that Alaska has "long held the unfortunate position as leading the nation in per capita reported rapes." He asserted that a small portion of the population create a majority of this problem and therefore, this legislation addresses repeat sex offenders. Senator French explained that upon conviction of a second sex offense, this bill imposes a separate and more stringent category of presumptive sentencing and removes the "good time". He remarked that this bill is punitive and designed to treat repeat offenders in a "more serious manner" by sentencing them to longer terms and keeping them in prison longer. He noted the provisions would affect unclassified, A, B and C felony classification. Senator French qualified that this bill would result in increased costs to the State; however, he asserted that these repeat sex offenders "cycle through the system" at a significant rate. He exampled that of the over 700 sex offenders currently incarcerated, over half have been incarcerated ten or more times. He suggested that some savings could therefore occur in the "transaction costs" of releasing and the reincarceration of these offenders. Senator Bunde noted he was involved in a previous effort of drafting Alaska's "three strikes" statutes. He asked if the sponsor had reviewed these statutes and whether they could be applied to repeat sex offenders. Senator French replied that the statutes would address the more serious cases of sexual assault; however, the qualifying previous conviction criterion is stringent and therefore difficult to apply. He stated that the proposed legislation specifically relating to sexual offenders would avoid the sentencing other offenders to a 40-year term upon conviction of a C felony. Senator Bunde wanted to work with the sponsor to readdress this issue. Senator French assured the Committee of his willingness to do so. BARBARA BRINK, Director, Public Defender Agency, Department of Administration, testified via teleconference from an off net location in Anchorage, in favor of efforts to reduce repeat sex offences. However, she expressed concerns with the bill, particularly with the elimination of the good time credit. She questioned the rationalization of holding certain offenders in prison for longer terms because of concern of future crimes they might commit. She suggested that this could be in violation of equal protection rights because it singles out a particular offense rather than a class of offenses. Ms. Brink cautioned that although the Public Defender Agency (PDA) fiscal note is in an indeterminate amount, she stressed that costs would be incurred. She predicted increased litigation would result due to the more serious consequences and the removal of discretion for the prosecution to negotiate sentencing. She pointed out that many clients of the PDA are rural indigent Natives, and that many of the offenses include serious substance abuse issues that are not addressed in this legislation. Senator French acquiesced that the prospect of additional trials is possible; however by increasing the severity of all classifications of repeat sex offenses, the bill would allow the prosecution to negotiate a lesser offense. He informed that sexual abuse of a minor cases are "notoriously" difficult to prosecute because typically the only witness is a child who usually has some type of relationship with the accused. In such cases with other convincing evidence, he stated that the offender could be convicted of an unclassified felony and receive a maximum sentence of 30 years. However, he continued that in cases with an incentive to avoid trial, such as extensive trauma to the child, or difficulty with other witnesses or evidence, the prosecutor could negotiate a lesser charge. He stated that although the offender would receive "an enormous break" with regard to the potential prison sentence, the actual sentence would still be significant. He therefore predicted more cases would be settled. Senator Bunde commented that similar arguments of increased trials were made in opposition to the three strikes legislation; however the court system has not been overloaded. Senator Taylor clarified that the standards of the three strikes statutes is high and subsequently difficult for prosecutors to invoke. Senator French agreed and detailed that to invoke this provision, an offender must be convicted of three unclassified or Class A felonies in separate cases. He noted that upon a second conviction, an offender would receive a significant jail term and probably not be out of prison to commit a third major crime. He pointed out that this provision is normally reserved for the most serious offenders, those who commit homicide, first-degree rape, etc. Senator Taylor commented that Alaska historically imposes longer sentences than most other states for comparable crimes and therefore the three strikes statute is not often invoked. PORTIA PARKER, Assistant Commissioner, Department of Corrections, described the Department fiscal note, which was calculated based on the high recidivism rate of sex offenders. She listed that of the 727 sex offenders currently interned, 581 or 80 percent have been "through the State system" at least once before, with an average recidivism rate of 6.24 times. Of the 80 percent, she furthered, 52 percent of the inmates have been previously incarcerated ten or more times. She informed that bookings, inmate transfers and other costs related to processing inmates in and out of custody are the highest costs to the Department. She pointed out this does not include other costs to the judicial system, including arrests, court time, prosecutors and public defenders. Therefore, she stated this legislation would reduce those expenses and result in minimal increases. Senator Taylor noted the significant recidivism rates of sex offenders. He asked if data was available to predict the number of offenders who would be impacted by this legislation within a given period of time. Ms. Parker replied that upon further research, an estimate could be produced. She noted that many current inmates serving sentences for sex offenses had committed different crimes resulting in their previous convictions. She stated that 15 percent of the 727 inmates serving time for a sex offence have a prior sex offense conviction. Senator Taylor clarified that 15 percent is serving a second sentence for a sexual crime. Ms. Parker affirmed. Senator Taylor asked the length of sentence these inmates received for their second sex offense. Ms. Parker did not have this information. Senator Taylor requested this information, commenting that before changes are made to the current process, it should be determined whether changes are necessary. He suggested that these offenders could already be receiving comparable sentencing. Senator Taylor did not oppose the legislation and did not want it delayed, however he expressed concern with the argument that this could result in violations of equal protection. Senator French noted similar legislation has been adopted in six other states and is under consideration in additional states. He opined that the equal protection challenge would be "thwarted" because other provisions are directed at repeat drunken driving offenders. He explained that these provisions do not treat a specific class unfairly, but rather demonstrate a rational basis for the State's actions, that being high recidivism and significant harm caused by these crimes. Senator Taylor directed the record must reflect Senator French's comments in the event this legislation is challenged in court. He furthered that the provisions identify specific violations as well as a unique character and personality type. He remarked that these offenders could be treated as a "definable and a separate group" without violating the equal protection clause of either the Alaska or the US Constitution. LAURIE HUGONIN, Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, testified in Juneau that during fiscal year 2002 approximately 2,000 victims of sexual assault sought assistance from various programs in Alaska. She cited the Child Welfare League data that one in four girls and one is six boys would be sexually assaulted before the age of 18. She furthered that sex offenders, particularly child abusers, usually commit multiple violations before entering the judicial system. While treatment is beneficial to reduce recidivism, she stressed that the safest course of action to prevent repeated sexual assaults is to keep offenders out of the community. She referenced studies showing that treatment does not completely change an offender's behavior, but rather delays the amount of time before re-offending occurs. Ms. Hugonin understood the benefits of encouraging inmates to behave while serving their sentences; however, the safety of the community is more important and repeat sex offenders should be incarcerated for as long as possible. Ms. Hugonin noted that other states that do not allow for good time for sexual offenders despite extending good time provisions to other classifications of prisoners. She listed Arizona, which utilizes this provision for sex offenders; Tennessee requires offenders convicted of child rapists and multiple rapists to serve the entire sentence imposed by the court "undiminished by any sentence reduction credits"; Oregon does not allow "earned time" for a class of crimes including sexual assault and sexual assault of a minor; and Illinois reduces the amount of "good time" available for sex offenders. She also informed that this legislation would not impose the strictest provisions, as the State of Iowa requires offenders convicted more than once of a felony sexual predatory offense to serve twice the maximum period of incarceration. Senator Taylor expressed that although he supports the concept of this legislation, DNA evidence and other events have occurred resulting in exoneration of convicts. He told of a case in the State of Washington in which a group of people who operated a day care center were, "persecuted by a zealous district attorney who attempted to show a valid case of child sexual abuse." Senator Taylor stated this situation, in which the defendants were cleared, should be avoided in Alaska. Senator Taylor charged that legislation relating to sex offender registers and increased penalties for "sex oriented crimes", "and to be blunt, it's a sexy thing to do for a Legislator because it carries a lot of political hammer out there with the public." He qualified that the public intends the Legislature to make every effort to punish and reduce sexual offense, which he supported. However, he cautioned that "responsibility and integrity" must be invested in district attorneys and prosecutors. SFC 03 # 83, Side A 10:33 AM Senator Taylor continued that each time he has requested data on child sexual abuse cases investigated by the Department of Health and Social Services, the annual statistics indicate an average of 70 percent of all investigations found no "basis in fact". He contended that during these investigations, children are removed from families and "arrests are made." He was therefore concerned with increased penalties and sex offender registration lists. Senator Taylor offered a motion to report CS SB 85 (STA) from Committee with individual recommendations and accompanying fiscal notes. Without objections CS SB 85 (STA) REPORTED from Committee with a zero fiscal note #1 from the Department of Law, a zero fiscal note, dated 4/29/03 from the Department of Corrections, and an indeterminate fiscal note dated 4/29/03 from the Department of Administration. Co-Chair Wilken comment on need to keep tomorrows debate focused.