Some Alaska politicians are trying to roll back sensible, money-saving reforms that improve the criminal-justice system and promote other conservative values, because of an increase in the crime rate that is unlikely to have much to do with the recently passed reforms. Indeed, some of the changes passed last year in Senate Bill 91 won’t even go into effect until 2018.
But it’s hard to debate crime policy rationally when people are afraid — and when their elected officials are more interested in stoking that fear and deflecting political blowback than they are in wrestling with the real causes of the recent crime increase.
“I think from every point where you shine a light on this issue, there’s a problem with SB 91,” Sen. Mia Costello told the Juneau Empire last month. The Anchorage Republican was a co-sponsor of the legislation, but is now feeling the heat from constituents after recently released FBI crime statistics show increases in some types of crime, as well as a couple of recent high-profile crimes, in particular.
Gov. Bill Walker, in the midst of a re-election campaign last year, called for a special session to consider repealing a few parts of the bill he signed in July 2016. There’s a growing effort by lawmakers to scuttle the new measure (SB 54) to gut broader sections of the 2016 legislation.
But waiting for the reforms to take hold and carefully analyzing new data is exactly what’s needed, rather than hastily reworking what Walker called “an historic moment” at last year’s signing ceremony. Alaska’s realignment of its public-safety priorities wasn’t passed hastily. It was the product of intense research and input from stakeholders from across the political and criminal-justice spectrum. The legislation sought to turn the tide on longstanding and disturbing crime trends that are unlikely to be altered overnight.
Alaska’s jail and prison populations grew 27 percent between 2005 and 2014 and were on track to grow by a similar amount in the next decade before SB 91 was passed. That trend has diverted tens of millions of scarce taxpayer dollars to expanding the prison system, at a time when there already are insufficient law-enforcement resources at the state and local level.
The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission , found that 75 percent of the newly-sentenced people sent to prison in Alaska were convicted of nonviolent crimes. The state lacks resources to deal with the drug-addiction and mental-health issues that often are the cause of low-level crimes. Alaska also long had used an incarceration-heavy approach. But when shoplifters and other low-level offenders go to prison, they become hardened and more apt to offend again. This is no doubt part of the explanation for the state’s appallingly high recidivism rate.
SB 91 is lengthy and complex but it essentially reduces sentences for many nonviolent offences and then redirects a projected $380 million in savings over the next 10 years toward recidivism-reduction programs, pre-trial supervision and other crime-prevention and victim services. It also increased the penalties for some violent crimes. States such as Texas that have embraced a similar strategy have had remarkable success at lowering crime rates and reducing both prison populations and the resulting high costs from operating prison facilities.
Such far-reaching reforms don’t show results immediately. Indeed, Alaska has yet to even hire the new corrections officers to monitor defendants who are out on bail, as required under the law. You can’t blame a perceived crime wave on legislation that isn’t even fully implemented and that wasn’t in effect for half of the latest crime-reporting period.
Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth and Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan wrote recently that, before SB 91’s passage, “we saw the number of inmates growing faster than the facilities we had to house them and two out of three inmates returned to jail within three years of release.” They support some of the changes the governor proposes, but noted that “criminal justice reform will need time — and resources — to bear fruit.” That’s the key takeaway.
Indeed, the Anchorage police “say there is no data to conclusively link the state’s new criminal justice reform law … to a rise in certain crimes,” the Alaska Dispatch News reported last month. The newspaper also recently noted that the crime rise “in most categories started before the passage of the criminal justice legislation, and supporters of the broad reform say other causes are driving the trend, including addictive opioid painkillers and a budget crisis that’s forced sharp cuts to misdemeanor prosecutions.”
It’s not just SB 91’s supporters who make the latter points. Sen. Costello also noted to the Empire that “There’s a problem with the opioid crisis. There’s a problem with the economy as a whole and with the recession that we’re experiencing. There’s a problem with funding.” Translation: Costello and other policymakers really have no idea what exactly is behind the crime increases. Yet she wants to “clear the deck and start from the beginning.”
But before Alaskans scrap a carefully conceived criminal-justice package and start over from scratch, shouldn’t they stop stoking the public’s fear and at least give those “historic” reforms a chance?
• Steven Greenhut, in Sacramento, California, is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Arthur Rizer, in Washington, D.C. is national security and justice policy director for the R Street Institute (@arthurrizer).