Alaska lawyers can no longer make deals on their own to decide what sentence is fitting for a defendant admitting they committed a serious crime.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Law announced it will no longer allow plea deals for cases that include charges of sexual assault, sexual abuse of a minor, child exploitation, human trafficking or domestic violence. There will be no sentence deals in unclassified or Class A felonies, the offenses that carry the harshest punishments.
An email distributed to defense lawyers from prosecutors said that exceptions to the rule are allowed but must be approved by Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny.
According to an annual report by the Alaska Court System, 90.1 percent of felony cases ended with a plea bargain of some sort.
From now on, defense lawyers and state prosecutors are only allowed to determine what crime has been committed and to negotiate what charges will be filed. Svobodny says that means there is still a window for defendants to get a lighter sentence in exchange for admitting guilt, though it is much narrower than in the past.
Judges can now decide what sentence is fitting during hearings that make more information available to them: victim and witness statements, police reports and other information previously not known to the court.
While judges could always request the information and reject plea deals, Niesje Steinkruger -- a retired Superior Court judge from Fairbanks -- says that it rarely happened under the old rules. She describes the absence of information previously presented to judges as troubling.
"When a plea is taken, usually all the judge has in front of her is a pretty thin file that only has the charging document, the complaint or the indictment," Steinkruger said. "Judges do not have police reports. Judges do not have information from the victim, unless the victim has written a letter or is in the courtroom and provides information to the judge."
James Christie, an Anchorage defense lawyer, says the changes are beneficial even for lawyers who are intent on minimizing time served by clients. Christie says he supports the change because it puts an unbiased mediator in charge of decision-making, instead of biased defense lawyers and prosecutors.
"I would much rather have sentencing narrowly tailored in each individual case by an impartial judge than I would have the conditions crafted by somebody who has a dog in the fight, which typically are the prosecutors," Christie said.
But the change does create a series of questions: how much extra work will there be, how much will it cost, and will victims of sexual crimes be required to take the stand to get a fitting sentence?
State Sen. Hollis French (D-Anchorage) is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be tracking the effects of the new policy in the coming months. He says by September or October it should become clear how much the cost will be, but he believes there will definitely be a spike in expenses and demand for judicial personnel.
"The attorneys on both sides will need more time to prepare, the sentencing hearings will be longer," French said. "So the question is whether the system -- meaning the budget writers and the participants -- are willing to do that extra work, pay for that extra work and make it happen."
French also says there is a chance more victims of sex crimes will need to take the stand for cross-examination.
Steinkruger says sparing victims in those crimes from reliving a life-altering, painful experience is among the reasons plea bargains prevailed in Alaska for many years.
"There are certainly cases, frequently sexual assaults, where the plea process means that the victim doesn't have to testify and go through the very difficult court process," Steinkruger said. "They still have to go through the grand jury process, but they don't have to testify and relive the trauma."
The policy change comes on the heels of a series of high-profile, controversial cases. Perhaps none is more notorious than the case of Jerry Active, a 24-year-old Togiak man who stands accused of killing an elderly Anchorage couple and sexually assaulting two women plus a 2-year-old girl in a single home the same day he was released from jail.
Svobodny says that did not motivate the timing of the change.
Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell, says the change is the result of years of discussion about the issue and months of close talks with prosecutors and judicial experts from around the state. Parnell, she says, worked closely with Attorney General Michael Geraghty throughout the process.
Svobodny says more changes to the state's plea bargaining process are on the horizon, with the next focus being less serious crimes. He says that should be completed by fall.
According to Department of Law spokesperson Cori Mills, some criminal defendants who were counting on a plea deal may soon get some bad news. Deals already completed will be honored, Mills says, but any not yet accepted are scrapped effective immediately.