Bill to update Alaska Military Code of Justice advances

JUNEAU, Alaska — A bill to update Alaska’s Uniform Code of Military Justice is making progress through the state House, advancing Friday from a judiciary committee review. It is expected to be scheduled for a vote by the full House.

Lawmakers advanced the bill intended to strengthen the state’s military code after a scathing report found that actual and perceived favoritism, ethical misconduct and fear of reprisal were eroding trust and confidence in the leadership of the Alaska National Guard. The National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations also found the Alaska National Guard was not properly administering justice through the investigation or adjudication of guard member misconduct.

Then-Gov. Sean Parnell asked the bureau in 2014 to investigate reports of sexual assault, rape and fraud among members of the Alaska National Guard. Investigators found that while the guard’s sexual assault prevention and response program was well-organized, victims did not trust the system and the guard did not have a mechanism to coordinate prosecution with local law enforcement.

Alaska’s code was established in 1955 and has remained largely unchanged since then.

According to the National Guard Bureau Office Of Complex Investigations, Alaska National Guard leadership seemed unaware that the state’s code of military justice existed and the investigation found no record of a court martial since 1955.

One issue with the state’s current code was a lack of enforcement capability for the guard for any crime that could be tried by civil authorities.

The new bill calls for potential jail time and dishonorable discharge for crimes such as writing bad checks, breach of peace and indecent exposure. It also includes several sections that apply to cases typically handled by civilian authorities including sexual assault and drunk driving.

While the changes would empower the state’s national guard to prosecute more crimes committed by service members than is currently allowed, the guard’s prosecution process is limited to a maximum of up to ten years in jail time and — unlike the federal Uniform Code of Military Justice — Alaska’s guard would not be able to impose a death sentence.

Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said he noticed the sentencing maximum language and interpreted it to mean that the maximum penalty in a sexual abuse case was the same as the maximum penalty for a military crime such as collaborating with the enemy.

“In the federal case, that could be a death penalty,” Keller said. “I’m just wondering if there are any ramifications of having those two maximum penalties the same.”

U.S. National Guard Capt. Forrest Dunbar, who was tasked with helping to overhaul the state’s code of military justice, told Keller that the state’s National Guard felt the sentencing maximum was appropriate.

He said the guard would not prosecute certain kinds of crimes that could be punished with harsher sentences in civilian courts.

“We took a number of things out. Things like murder and the highest levels of sexual assault — sexual assaults of a child, those kinds of things — because we don’t feel it’s appropriate for our national guard to be prosecuting those things. Those are civilian crimes, primarily civilian crimes and they have much higher limits on sentencing,” Dunbar said.

Punishments that could include the death penalty at the federal level for certain military offenses — misbehavior toward the enemy or desertion — Dunbar said would typically occur in situations where service members were in active duty statues and therefore subject to prosecution under the federal code.

“We acknowledge that there could be sort of a one-in-a-million, who knows what the exact proportion is, but a very, very unlikely chance where we would have an enemy here in Alaska and for whatever reason the federal government hasn’t responded and federalized us and in that brief window one of our soldiers could commit one of these very specific offenses. In which case we would be limited to ten years in prison,” he said.

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