This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
The rollout for Senate Bill 91, the judicial reform bill passed by the Legislature last year in an effort to combat high recidivism rates and overcrowded prisons, hasn’t gone altogether smoothly. Seen as going easy on criminals by some members of the general public and often criticized by state prosecutors, the law has become a frequent target of those dissatisfied with the judicial system. The Legislature this session has responded by discussing revisions to the law. That’s appropriate. Like many other far-reaching bills, there are ways to tweak SB 91 to be responsive to public concerns without throwing the initiative out entirely.
The problems leading to SB 91’s creation were real and serious. Long sentencing ranges for crimes, the product of tough-on-crime policies in past decades, have had the result of substantially increasing prison populations, at a cost to the state of more than $50,000 per prisoner per year. The decade before SB 91’s passage saw annual prison population growth of 3 percent, with two-thirds of those released from the corrections system going on to reoffend shortly afterward, according to Department of Corrections statistics. With the prison system running at 101 percent capacity even after the opening of the relatively new Goose Creek Correctional Center in Point MacKenzie, the state needed to make changes if it didn’t want to build another $300 million prison with operating costs of $50 million per year. And given the state’s budget woes, sums of that magnitude for capital projects were essentially nonexistent.
With SB 91, sponsored by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, the Legislature departed from the tough-on-crime model. Sentencing ranges were reduced, particularly for nonviolent offenses, and more latitude was given for alternatives to prison such as electronic monitoring while defendants awaited trial. In addition, restorative justice models and rehabilitation programs that have proved effective at reducing recidivism elsewhere were emphasized.
There have been legitimate frustrations with SB 91 since its passage. State lawyers and the public have chafed at reduced sentencing guidelines for the lowest class of felonies that allow some offenders to serve no prison time. And some feel punishment for minor property offenses is insufficient to break shoplifters of their kleptomania impulses before they become a habit. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission has suggested 14 tweaks to the bill in response to those issues. The Legislature should take that recommendation seriously and use it as a model for revision to the law.
Calls to repeal the law entirely, however, are misguided. SB 91 was a bold attempt to improve criminal justice outcomes for Alaska. It may have been too bold in some areas, and in those areas, revisions are suitable. But the problems the bill addresses are serious and, left unaddressed, would do great harm to Alaska’s economy and its communities. The broader goals of the law deserve time for the bill’s effects to make themselves apparent.