Breaking down SB 54: What you need to know about Alaska's newest crime reform bill

Published: Nov. 27, 2017 at 8:40 PM AKST
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On Sunday, Gov. Bill Walker

, a move in large part intended to address issues with predecessor bill Senate Bill 91, the sweeping crime reform bill passed in 2016.

"The passage of SB 54 helps to build a [sic] Safer Alaska," said Gov. Walker in a written statement released Monday. "While some portions of the legislation may need to be addressed by the court system, this law is an important first step in returning some important tools to the law enforcement community."

is the lone bill to come out of state lawmakers' fourth special session, and most of it officially went into effect Monday at 12:01 a.m. Alaska time.

"This is striking a right balance between the concepts that underlie criminal justice reform," said John Skidmore, director of the Criminal Division of the State of Alaska Deptartment of Law, "but ensuring that law enforcement and prosecutors have the appropriate tools to try and address the illegal conduct that occurs in our communities."

Senate Bill 91 still isn't in full effect; its third phase will be rolled out in January of 2018. So what exactly did SB 54 change? Here's a breakdown.

Sentencing ranges for certain felony charges increased.

Senate Bill 54 changed presumptive sentencing ranges for Class C felonies - considered the least serious felony crime category - such as vehicle theft and promoting prostitution: First offenses were changed from a probationary sentence to up to two years of jail time, while second offenses were also increased, from a range of one to three years to a range of one to four years' jail time. Punishment for third offenses was not altered.

Criminals can once again land in jail for lower theft convictions.

The theft of property valued at less than $250 can now land criminals in prison. For the first conviction, courts can sentence a person to up to five days in jail; for the second, a person may be sentenced to up to 10 days in jail; and for a third offense, there can be a 15-day jail sentence.

Upon a fourth conviction, the offense will be increased to a Class A Misdemeanor, or Theft in the Third Degree, which in most cases is punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

Violating conditions of release has returned to 'misdemeanor' status.

The charge of Violating Conditions of Release is a misdemeanor again, punishable with up to five days' jail time. A person may be arrested and held until bail is set and made on the new offense.

Sex offenders face mandatory probation periods.

This is also a reestablished law. Convicted sex offenders who committed sex offenses considered unclassified felonies will now face 15 years of probation, while Class A and B felonies will receive 10 years' probation and Class C felonies receive five.

Sex traffickers, specifically, will be held more accountable.

Senate Bill 54 amends statutes to help ensure that those who profit off of other sex workers can actually be held accountable as sex traffickers.

"There were some changes made to sex trafficking laws during SB 91, and those changes I think had the unintentional effect of creating a loophole," Skidmore said. "So SB 54 struck that right balance to say a person engaged in prostitution can't be charged with sex trafficking, but a person who owns a place of prostitution could be charged with sex trafficking."

Lawsuits? Glad you asked.

As with any changes in criminal laws, potential exists for people to challenge the way the laws were written, or in this case, rewritten. In addition, House Speaker Bryce Edgemon has called the bill "constitutionally flawed." As such, the

released Monday states, "it is likely that an affected offender will challenge the legality of this sentencing framework."

The department also maintains that the changes are "both well within the Legislature's prerogative and... likely

if challenged."

Skidmore said Monday that the Dept. of Law does not believe any legal challenges to SB 54, if posed, would ultimately prevail.

SB 54 also addresses other issues, including ones tied to drug and alcohol abuse.

The bill adds synthetic opioid U-47700 - also known as "pink" - and Tramadol as controlled substances, criminalizing illicit distribution and possession of each.

At the same time, SB 54 could expand the Alcohol Safety Action Program to include those charged or convicted of misdemeanors involving the use of alcohol or controlled substances. Because expansion would likely require additional funding, it would become effective on July 1, 2018, but only "upon an appropriation... 50 percent greater than the appropriation the program received in fiscal year 2018," according to the Dept. of Law.

What does it all mean for local law enforcement?

The short answer is that while the possible effects of SB 54 have been discussed within circles such as the Anchorage Police Dept., the true outcome remains unknown.

"We're currently evaluating what the changes actually are, with the District Attorney and the Prosecutor's Office," said Anchorage Police Dept. Chief Justin Doll, "so we can give officers on the street guidance on how it affects their day-to-day routines."