Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, speaks about teacher bonuses during consideration a bill increasing state funds for public education in the Alaska House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, speaks about teacher bonuses during consideration a bill increasing state funds for public education in the Alaska House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Juneau, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Rep. Ben Carpenter: Why reform for the grand jury matters

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

In Alaska, a grand jury serves as a crucial pillar of our justice system, comprised of 12 to 18 citizens tasked with determining whether there is sufficient evidence to charge an individual with a felony crime. Led by a prosecutor, grand jurors review evidence and hear witness testimony in closed proceedings, free from the presence of defense attorneys or judges. Their role is not to decide guilt or innocence but to ascertain if probable cause exists to proceed with criminal charges. The grand jury may issue an indictment, initiating the legal process against the defendant.

Complementary to this power, the Alaska Constitution grants the grand jury the authority to investigate and make recommendations concerning public welfare and safety, although such inquiries have historically been infrequent. Prior to 2022, grand juries issued only a handful of investigative reports concerning public welfare and safety since statehood in 1959.

Despite their low frequency, these investigations underscore the grand jury’s broader mandate to safeguard community interests and ensure the public’s well-being. Thus, the grand jury’s dual function — evaluating criminal charges and addressing matters of public concern — highlights its significance in upholding the principles of justice for Alaska’s citizens. But there is a problem with the grand jury system in our state, and all Alaskans should be aware of it.

The Alaska Constitution says, “The power of grand juries to investigate and make recommendations concerning the public welfare or safety shall never be suspended.” Citizen grand juries and citizen access to grand juries is a tool necessary to protect their rights, as well as keeping those in power from abusing that power. I believe it is the legislature’s duty to protect that tool, to minimize the impact of the pursuit of justice on the victims of crimes, and to minimize barriers in a grand jury’s pursuit of justice for citizens and victims.

Judicial officers and officers of the court have prevented members from speaking to the other members of the grand jury about crimes.

Our “Judicial System” has been operating under the statute, but only part of it. Fundamental to this discussion is AS 12.40.040, that requires grand jurors to disclose any information they have regarding a crime for investigation by the grand jury. However, our legal system, influenced by both the Department of Law and the Judiciary Branch, has implemented barriers that obstruct the transmission of information to the grand jury, unless the prosecuting attorney wants it to go before the Grand Jury.

My amendment to correct this situation was successfully added to HB 67 in House Judiciary, despite opposition by Department of Law. The amendment will empower grand jurors to propose investigations and reinforce the grand jury’s authority to indict and make recommendations for public welfare and safety.

AS 12.40.070(3) says the grand jury has the power to (investigate and) direct the district attorney to prepare an indictment. My amendment makes it a Class A Misdemeanor to question a member for what they may say to a grand jury or prevent an investigation by a grand jury.

The grand jury amendment in HB 67 will have a long and bumpy road to becoming law, but I felt it was my duty to raise awareness and provide solutions for this very important constitutional right.

Ben Carpenter represents House District 8 and serves as chairman of the Ways & Means Committee. Contact Rep.Ben.Carpenter@akleg.gov, 907-465-3779 or visit https://bencarpenterpost.com/.

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