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2.5: A Brief History of the Alaska Criminal Code Revision

  • Page ID
    97142

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    This textbook analyzes criminal law through the lens of Alaska’s Revised Criminal Code. Title 11 of the Alaska statutes is dedicated to substantive criminal law; Title 12 is Alaska’s code of criminal procedure.[1] The overwhelming majority of citations and examples contained in this text are taken directly from Alaska statutes and case law. Throughout the text, reference will be made to Alaska’s Revised Criminal Code, which became effective January 1, 1980, and was a comprehensive criminal code revision. Although subsequent legislative revisions have been made over the years, no legislature has completely revised substantive criminal law as was done in 1980.

    A comprehensive criminal code offers significant benefits to practitioners, judges, and the general public. As you will read below, legislative commentary accompanied the passage of the Revised Criminal Code. This commentary provides meaningful insight into legislative intent, the importance of which will become evident as we explore different substantive criminal issues.

    The following is an excerpt from the Revised Criminal Code, Law Enforcement Workbook (9th ed. 1994). The original Workbook was prepared by the Alaska Department of Law with dedicated funding from the Alaska Legislature to train Alaska police officers on the new, revised criminal code.

    INTRODUCTION: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ALASKA
    CRIMINAL CODE REVISION

    Alaska’s criminal law has for the most part been based on Oregon statutes as they existed at the close of the nineteenth century. Prior to 1899, the Alaska Government Act of 1884 provided that “the general laws of the State of Oregon now in force are hereby declared to be the law in said district, so far as the same may be applicable and not in conflict with the provisions of this act or the laws in the United States.” In 1899, Congress approved a criminal code for Alaska based primarily on Oregon law. Most of these century-old Oregon criminal statutes were still in effect in Alaska in 1975, even though Oregon itself enacted a revised criminal code in 1971.

    [During the intervening] seventy years, Alaska territorial and state legislatures … added new statutes and amended old ones according to the inspiration of individual legislators reacting to the atmospheres of different times. The result was inevitable. In 1975, Alaska’s criminal law was filled with outdated statutes, imprecise and obsolete terminology, needless distinctions and overly specific and sometimes unconstitutional provisions. The criminal law seemed to deal more adequately with concerns of nineteenth century Oregon than it did with problems of twentieth century Alaska.

    The necessity for a comprehensive revision of Alaska’s criminal law was acknowledged in 1975, by the first session of the Ninth Alaska Legislature when it requested the Legislative Council and the Attorney General to establish a “blue ribbon” panel to revise Alaska’s criminal laws. The Legislative Council subsequently established the Criminal Code Revision Commission with an initial membership of nine.

    The commission was charged with the responsibility of presenting a revised criminal code to the second session of the Ninth Legislature. On February 1, 1976, the Commission presented the legislature with a Preliminary Report in which it recommended that it be continued or reconstituted and allowed to complete its work by early 1978. The legislature took no action on the drafts contained in the Preliminary Report but statutorily reestablished the Criminal Code Revision Commission as a Subcommission of the newly formed Code Commission. The Subcommission’s mandate was clear; by December 1, 1977, it was to “prepare a comprehensive revision of the State’s criminal laws.”

    The Subcommission’s membership was set at 14, with a fifteenth member added during the 1977 legislative session. Several members of the Subcommission originally served on the Commission. The Subcommission included the Commissioner of Public Safety, the Attorney General, legislators, judges and members of the public.

    The Subcommission prepared a six-part Tentative Draft of its proposed revisions accompanied by commentary. The Tentative Draft was distributed to all state judges and justices, the state and local bar associations, the state district attorneys and the police chiefs of major cities.

    On January 19, 1978, HB 661 “An Act revising the criminal laws of the state; and providing for an effective date” was introduced in the House by the House Judiciary Committee. This bill contained all the recommendations of the Subcommission and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee where daily hearings began immediately.

    The House Judiciary Committee devoted nearly three months of public hearings to reviewing the Code. No other bills were considered during this period. Suggestions for amendments were primarily made by the following organizations: The Alaska Bar Association Criminal Law Committee, the Alaska Peace Officers Association, the Alaska Chiefs of Police Association and the criminal division of the Alaska Department of law.

    Numerous amendments to the version of the Code recommended by the Subcommission were made by the committee during the three months of hearings. These amendments were incorporated into a committee substitute for HB 661. On April 14, 1978, the House Committee Substitute passed the House by a 32-4-4 vote.

    The House Committee Substitute then moved to the Senate where it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the House Committee Substitute during nearly two months of public hearings. As was the case in the House, no other bills were considered by the Committee during this period. Public testimony was received primarily from the Alaska Peace Officers Association, Alaska Chiefs of Police Association and the criminal division of the Alaska Department of Law. As a result of the Senate review approximately 150 amendments were made to the House version of the Code.

    The Senate Judiciary Committee incorporated its amendments to the Code into a Senate Committee Substitute – SCS CSHB 611. The Senate Committee Substitute, with the addition of three floor amendments adopted on June 13, passed the Senate by a 18-2 vote on June 14, 1973. On notice of reconsideration the amended Senate Committee Substitute, SCS CSHB 661 am S, passed the Senate the next day by a 17-1-2 vote.

    The need for a free conference committee to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of the Code was avoided on June 16, 1978, when the house concurred in the Senate amendments by a 31-0-9 vote. The revised criminal code became law when it was signed by the governor on July 22, 1978, with an effective date of January 1, 1980.

    While the Code was winding its way through the legislature, commentary explaining the Code and expressing legislative intent was also being drafted. On June 12, 1978, the Senate published this commentary as Senate Journal Supplement No. 47. The House subsequently adopted Senate Journal Supplement No. 47 as its letter of intent for the criminal code. An errata sheet to the commentary appears in Senate Journal Supplement No. 48.

    The version of the Code that was signed by Governor Hammond in July, 1978, differed in many respects from the bill that was originally introduced in the legislature in January. Nevertheless, the basic structure of the Code did not change during the five months of intensive legislative review. Four important features of the Code remained intact in all versions of the Code.

    1. The revision was comprehensive. All of Title 11 was revised and a new sentencing scheme was adopted in Title 12 to accompany the substantive revisions.

    2. All crimes, with the exception of murder and kidnapping were classified on the basis of their seriousness as Class A, B or C felonies or as Class A and B misdemeanors. In 1982, Sexual Assault in the First Degree was raised to an unclassified felony subject to a maximum sentence of 30 years. Uniform penalty provisions apply to the five classes of crimes.

    3. The sentencing provisions left judicial discretion intact in the sentencing of misdemeanants and most first-time felony offenders. Judicial discretion, however, was substantially restricted by the specification of presumptive sentences for repeat felons.

    4. Four culpable mental states “intentionally”, “knowingly”, “recklessly” and “criminal negligence” – were defined and used throughout the Code.


    1. The Alaska Criminal Rules, promulgated by the Alaska Supreme Court, supersede some portions of Title 12. A complete discussion of those deviations is beyond the scope of this text.

    This page titled 2.5: A Brief History of the Alaska Criminal Code Revision is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Rob Henderson via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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