Efforts to reduce sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska took another step forward Friday when Gov. Sean Parnell signed a set of bills making numerous changes to state criminal laws and procedures.
The legislation should help the governor advance the priority he announced last year -- to rid Alaska of these scourges.
The three bills signed into law, two of which were sponsored by the governor, tweak multiple aspects of law enforcement and judicial responses to sexual assaults and incidents of domestic violence. No one change is likely to make an enormous difference in itself, but together they should help stop some of our most deviant criminals.
One portion of the new law might have made a difference in a recent murder case in Fairbanks, for example, had it already been in effect.One of the men who helped kill downtown business owner Daniel Frederick did so while out on bail pending his sentencing for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl. The revised law, proposed by the governor, prohibits courts from releasing sexual felons between the time they are convicted and their sentencing.
Some of the changes obtained by the governor were not universally endorsed. One bill grants subpoena power to the attorney general in cases involving the use of the internet for child exploitation. Subpoena power -- the power to search -- is traditionally held by a judge, which separates it one step from the enforcement process and provides a check on its abuse. The governor, though, argued that law enforcement needs to be able to act faster in child pornography cases.
The new rules also prevent the imposition of suspended sentences on child pornographers and human traffickers. While this might appear to be a good tough approach, it remains to be seen how this works in reality. Will jail sentences increase or will prosecutors just find themselves obtaining similar jail times for offenders without the bonus of holding suspended sentences over their heads for many years after release?
Another of the bills, sponsored by state Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, clarifies how the state should deal with DNA evidence. The bill requires law enforcement agencies to retain DNA evidence while a person is in prison or on the sex offender list and while a case is unsolved. It also sets up a way for people who were wrongfully convicted to get DNA tested to exonerate them.
The changes should provide more information to law enforcement officers trying to find offenders. French noted that DNA helped solve a 13-year-old murder case in Anchorage recently. "The preservation of evidence is a vital and effective way to ensure the criminal justice system meets its goal of protecting the innocent and convicting the guilty," French said in a sponsor's statement.
All these changes in law will make gradual, incremental changes in the way the law enforcement and judicial systems handle crimes. On balance, and if implemented well, they should advance the goals expressed by the governor and shared by every upstanding Alaskan.