Legislature(1995 - 1996)
04/29/1995 02:30 PM JUD
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 167 DAY FINES & INFO FOR COLLECTING FINES CHRIS CHRISTENSEN, general counsel to the Alaska Court System, explained last year the legislature passed legislation authorizing courts to impose day fines for certain misdemeanor offenses. A day fine is based on the person's annual income. In the course of implementing this law, certain problems became apparent. Some of the problems can be rectified by simple amendments to the original law, however other problems are more fundamental. SB 167 addresses the more technical difficulties, not the fundamental problems. TAPE 95-27, SIDE B MR. CHRISTENSEN replied SB 167 contains technical changes to the law to make it more workable, however the law still contains fundamental problems. The legislature's intent in passing the law was to decrease the number of misdemeanor offenders serving jail time, and to increase fine collection rates. Two problems have occurred. First, the day fines law excludes most of the misdemeanor offenses for which people now serve jail time. About 90 percent of the people sent to jail serve time for six offenses: DWI; refusal to take a breath test; driving with a suspended license; driving with a revoked license; misdemeanor assault; and violation of a domestic violence restraining order. All six of those crimes are specifically excluded from the day fines law, and it is unlikely that jail sentences for those crimes will be eliminated by the legislature. SENATOR TAYLOR questioned the benefit to modifying some of the mandatory sentences to provide for electronic monitoring, coupled with a day fine, as opposed to serving jail time. MR. CHRISTENSEN felt there were underlying problems with the concept that would take some time to work through. He discussed a second problem with the current law. Judges are unlikely to order the payment of a day fine if the judge does not believe the person will pay the day fine. In reviewing the state's collection practices, the day fines committee discovered that current fine collection rates are extremely low and believes the program will not be widely used until the Department of Law receives additional collection tools. The federal court system is studying the possibility of preventing a person from renewing a state license until criminal fines are paid. Number 560 MR. CHRISTENSEN discussed a third fundamental problem pertains to the fine amounts that result from the day fines formula. The legislature directed that class A misdemeanors be subject to up to 365 day units, a day unit being one day of a person's salary. When trying to determine a reasonable fine, the committee decreased the amount to 45 day units, yet even at that level some fines are extreme. The fourth area of concern, described by MR. CHRISTENSEN, is about fish and game misdemeanor offenses. The day fines committee excluded those offenses from its report to prevent the imposition of another layer of complexity to the existing problems. The sentencing structure for fish and game offenses is unclear, and contains many different penalty provisions, and many offense definitions overlap. The day fines committee recommended that the legislature appoint a special committee or interagency group to assess and restructure fish and game penalty provisions and definitions of offenses. SENATOR TAYLOR agreed the legislature needs to make a policy decision on the fundamental issues raised. He asked Mr. Christensen if he believed the bill would be of significant benefit to the court system, even though it is only technical in nature, in light of the late session date. Number 512 MR. CHRISTENSEN believed if the technical changes are made, the Supreme Court would send the issue back to the day fines committee to see if implementation is possible. SENATOR TAYLOR announced he would hold the bill in committee to give members further opportunity for review. He added it could be moved out of committee quickly, if necessary. SENATOR GREEN asked if the sliding fee scale was a common approach to fine assessment. MR. CHRISTENSEN answered it is a common approach in Europe, and a few American jurisdictions have started to use it. He explained the theory is that large fines can be as much of a deterrent to criminal behavior as the threat of a very short jail sentence. Traditionally fines are imposed without regard to a person's income, and are generally low. This approach looks to a person's income to supposedly provide equity in the system.