This commentary originally appeared in Juneau Empire on February 4, 2017.
Alaska lawmakers should celebrate their landmark successful criminal justice overhaul last year. In July 2016, Gov. Bill Walker signed Senate Bill 91 into law, a bill designed to safely reduce the state’s growing prison population while enhancing public safety.
Alaska’s prison population has exploded by 27 percent over the last decade and lawmakers realized the unsustainable growth would continue sucking up more and more tax dollars. This extensively vetted bill gained overwhelming bipartisan support among Alaskan lawmakers like John Coghill, R-North Pole, Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, and Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham. As leaders face another tough budget outlook, it is time for Alaska to continue implementing the proven strategies in SB 91 that have worked to cut crime and costs in dozens of other states.
SB 91 focused on strengthening alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders while also boosting treatment programs for those in prison, nearly all of whom will ultimately return to society. This realization shows the importance of investment in programming that will reduce recidivism rates after release. Reduction of reoffending improves the likelihood that communities will experience lower crime, and it means that fewer offenders will cycle through the system repeatedly, producing more victims and costing Alaska citizens. .
According to fiscal notes and Department of Corrections projections, SB 91 is forecasted to produce remarkable savings to Alaska by avoiding projected growth in the prison population and reducing the current prison population by 13 percent over the next decade. Without the bill, the prison population would have surged another 27 percent. Savings from SB 91’s reforms are expected to be a total of $380 million with $211 million in direct net savings and $169 million in savings from averted growth.
SB 91 will also reinvest $99 million over six years into crime-reduction programs like substance abuse treatment, re-entry services, pretrial supervision, violence prevention and victim’s services. This reinvestment portion is important for public safety. This has been proven again and again by other states which have used similar models to reduce their skyrocketing incarcerated populations while simultaneously protecting their communities and maintaining safety.
Georgia is a good example of the success of these reforms. A staunchly conservative state, Georgia has reduced its incarcerated populations over the last several years with various legislative initiatives. These changes focused on expanding alternatives to prison for drug offenders, restructuring sentences to focus more severe penalties on serious offenses, and improving reentry and treatment programming. Since its 2012 reforms, Georgia’s imprisonment rate has dropped 7 percent and crime has dropped 11 percent.
Texas is another state which has seen massive changes to its criminal justice system in the last decade, which reversed projections of a ballooning prison population. Estimates in 2007 forecast that there would be another 17,000 prisoners by 2012, leading to billions in costs to build and operate more prisons. Instead, Texas adopted a justice reinvestment plan that expanded drug courts along with treatment beds and slots for addiction and mental illness. These reforms have been shown to be successful as well, as the state has reduced imprisonment rates by 16 percent while seeing a massive 30 percent drop in crime.
Conservative state leaders across the country have shown repeatedly that smart, forward-thinking criminal justice changes can avoid huge bills for taxpayers. Further, these reforms do not mean that crime rates will rise. Over the last several years, states which have decreased their prison populations saw greater decreases in their crime rates that states which increased their prison populations. Although many factors affect crime rates, it is clear that it is possible to have both less incarceration and less crime.
Conservative policies protect families, curb runaway government spending, and right-size government. These are all qualities embodied by the recent reform in Alaska, as well as by the changes in the tide of state criminal justice policy. As Alaska moves forward, its citizens can be confident that its criminal justice system is doing more to reduce recidivism while focusing limited prison beds on those who truly pose a danger to society.