Politics is getting in the way of building a safer Alaska.
Crime rates have been rising across Alaska for more than five years. The opioid epidemic has fueled crime, but budget cuts have limited the State’s ability to deploy enough law enforcement officers, prosecutors or treatment providers. Budget cuts have forced us to close nine trooper posts and reduce positions across the board. Prosecutors have to prioritize the most serious cases, leaving many property crimes unsolved.
But the problem goes deeper than short-term budget cuts. Many Alaskan communities didn’t receive adequate public safety services even before the price of oil crashed. Alaskans outside urban hubs lack conventional 911 service and consistent law enforcement presence. Across the state, our communities experience persistently high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide.
Gov. Bill Walker made it clear that public safety should be a priority this legislative session. As part of the administration’s Public Safety Action Plan, the governor introduced a legislative package of 70 smart public safety policies, including a budget that invests in public safety and package of legislation for lawmakers to review and approve.
The Public Safety Action Plan calls for the state to invest more in public safety and behavioral health services. It directs the state to intervene earlier and more effectively: pretrial officers to monitoring defendants on bail, counseling and preparing people for successful lives beyond prison. By identifying areas for collaboration across departments, federal, tribal and local governments, the Public Safety Action Plan lays the groundwork for an integrated response to deeply rooted problems.
We are grateful for the steps that legislators have taken so far to make Alaskans safer. By funding Medicaid in the supplemental budget, they protected thousands of Alaskans from losing access to substance abuse and mental health treatment. The budget that passed the House is a good first step to meet the governor’s demand to invest in public safety. And the Senate has taken up some public safety legislation in committee.
But we are now more than 80 days into the legislative session. Much of the legislative package remains stuck in House committees, and for now, the Senate has rejected increasing investment in public safety.
Most legislators in both chambers agree that Alaska needs to invest more in public safety: the biggest roadblock to progress is not disagreement on substance. Our message to the legislature is simple: do not play politics with the well-being of Alaskans.
Even as the state faces a fiscal crisis, we cannot afford to underfund public safety services. Alaskans are paying the price. Both chambers of the legislature need to agree to fully fund public safety in the budget and pass the full public safety legislative package.
We will continue to implement the Action Plan items that do not depend on legislative action, but the Legislature must also do its part.
To move the Action Plan forward, Governor Walker called on the legislature for a $34 million increase in public safety spending for a statewide drug prosecutor, more prosecutors in Western Alaska and Anchorage, trooper investigators, expanded substance abuse treatment programs, and more. We urge the Senate to approve this funding in the final budget.
We urge the House to starting hearing and moving the bills in our legislative package so we can:
• Consider out-of-state criminal history when making pretrial release decisions;
• Take immediate action on new and dangerous drugs by giving the Attorney General authority to schedule controlled substances rather than waiting on the legislature;
• Crack down with longer jail-time on high-level drug traffickers;
• Support hiring qualified public safety officers in rural communities; and
• Reduce recidivism by giving prisoners work opportunities and online reentry planning tools.
These policies will make Alaskans safer. This is smart justice.
The governor, House and Senate do not always agree on everything. We don’t expect them to. But we should be able to agree on this. The safety of our children, our neighbors and our communities depends on it.
Jahna Lindemuth became Alaska’s attorney general in 2016. Walt Monegan was appointed commissioner of public safety by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016.