Passing criminal justice reform is a bit like painting a house: Sometimes, another coat or two of paint may be needed in a few spots. This is the case with Alaska and Senate Bill 91, which has been clarified during the past two legislative sessions but remains a landmark accomplishment that put Alaska's corrections system on a path that delivers more public safety for every dollar spent.
Although SB 91 has had its share of critics, it is important to remember why lawmakers overwhelmingly decided that Alaska's system had lost its shine back in July 2016. First, the system was not accomplishing its mission, as 63 percent of those who left prison in Alaska in 2011 returned within three years. Also, the exploding costs associated with a prison population that had grown 27 percent from 2006 to 2016, left the state with a smaller budget for other priorities like education and health care. Without SB 91, the prison population would have surged another 27 percent. All told, the reforms in SB 91 were projected to give state residents a break of some $380 million with $211 million in direct net savings and $169 million in savings from averted prison growth.
Of course, saving money without protecting public safety is a fool's errand. Although SB 91 has wisely been tweaked in a few ways since it was originally approved, at its core are policies that protect Alaskans. First, it requires pretrial release decisions based on risk to public safety, rather than the defendant's wealth. After all, someone charged as a serial murderer should not be released, no matter how much money they have. And someone charged with writing a hot check without prior significant offenses will likely be assessed as low risk and should be released, even if they cannot afford to pay bail.
Second, SB 91 backed up policy changes on strengthening community supervision by investing a substantial share of money in treatment and other interventions that promote accountability and reduce re-offending. Among the key investments are $17 million on pretrial supervision officers to perform assessments and supervise defendants, $1.7 million for substance abuse treatment behind bars, $800,000 for substance abuse treatment in halfway houses, $3 million for re-entry interventions to connect returning prisoners to jobs and housing, and $3 million for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention.
It is also important to note policies that SB 91 did not change. It did not alter existing laws regarding public access to parole records. Also, SB 91 did not require that anyone be released from prison. While it did expand the eligibility for parole for certain offenders, no one is entitled to parole and the decision is made by a board composed of retired corrections and law enforcement professionals with decades of experience in public safety. Rates of granting parole have remained stable since SB 91 went into effect.
Moreover, SB 91 included provisions that make it more likely those coming out of prison will be prepared to be law-abiding citizens, such as providing photo identification to discharging inmates and the development of individualized reentry plans 90 days prior to release that better enable inmates to connect with family, employment, and housing. SB 91 also implemented swift and certain sanctions and incentives for people on supervision, which could be a curfew on one hand or a travel permit on the other. These have been found to reduce re-offending by sending an immediate and clear message that compliance is expected.
Though SB 91 has not been on the books long enough to do a full evaluation of the impact, there are signs that it is doing more than simply averting a fiscal tsunami. One intended goal of SB 91 was to enhance the use of alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, thereby prioritizing prison space for violent and dangerous offenders. Indeed, since the legislation went into effect, the percentage of prisoners incarcerated for a violent offense has gone up 7 percentage points.
Of course, the 120-page legislation wasn't perfect. In the most recent session, Alaska lawmakers made a few adjustments around the edges, including sensibly allowing for out-of-state prior convictions to be considered when performing the pretrial risk assessment. Though it is the exception, not everyone comes to the nation's most pristine state for pristine reasons and, in those cases, a checkered past may still place them on thin ice in the last frontier.
Unfortunately, some categories of crime were increasing in Alaska before SB 91 was passed, but there is no evidence that provisions of SB 91, such as allowing police discretion to issue a citation for low-level offenses instead of making an arrest (which can sometimes involve a plane ride), have exacerbated this trend.
Many factors affect crime rates, including an economy in recession, Alaska's geography, which strains the ability of police to deter and respond to crime, as well as a higher percentage of men compared with other states. However, SB 91 is ensuring that limited law enforcement and corrections resources are being focused on those types of crime that have the most pernicious impact on victims and communities while expanding treatment and services for behaviors driven by addiction and homelessness.
Like the system in every state, Alaska's corrections infrastructure remains a work in progress. However, given that the standard measures of recidivism involve a three-year evaluation following release from incarceration, the full impact of the programs funded through SB 91 to reduce recidivism will take additional time to assess. For now, given that lawmakers have touched up the finer points of SB 91 without painting with too broad a brush, they should await further research on the impact of the legislation before making further changes.
This commentary was originally featured in the Anchorage Daily News on July 16, 2018.