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Report: Alaska’s criminal justice reform achieving goals

Reforms were aimed at breaking a cycle of recidivism by punishing nonviolent offenders in ways other than jail

By Devin Kelly
Alaska Dispatch News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska’s prison population has shrunk since the state enacted criminal justice reform in 2016, though prison admission rates have started to tick up again in the past year, according to a new annual report from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.

At the same time, the composition of the prison population is changing. It’s shifting toward people convicted of violent crimes, the report says. Fewer prisoners are serving time for low-level nonviolent offenses, such as simple drug possession and theft.

The 83-page report to the state Legislature, released Friday, comes on the eve of a statewide election that has focused heavily on Senate Bill 91, the criminal justice reform law. It suggests the state is achieving its goals, Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, the chair of the commission, said in a Friday statement.

Critics of the law, who have been calling for its repeal, weren’t swayed.

“This is massaged data, and public safety is not the goal of this research,” said Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, who is running for a Senate seat and held a town hall forum in October about the law.

In a statement Friday, Marilyn Stewart, a Republican who is running against Claman for his seat and supports repeal, said the state’s high crime rates are evidence the law isn’t working. She said the state needs to “end the experiment.” She’s one of a number of other candidates for Legislature that have campaigned on anti-SB 91 platforms ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Alaska began its reform efforts in 2014 as the prison population was reaching capacity. The reforms were aimed at breaking a cycle of recidivism that was driving up costs and incarceration rates, by punishing low-level, nonviolent offenders in ways other than sending them to jail. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and Pew Charitable Trusts conducted research and gathered data.

Except for homicides or sex offenses, SB 91 took away or reduced jail as a penalty for the most common crimes. The law also changed elements of bail, parole and probation.

As property crime has spiked in recent years, an outcry erupted, with SB-91 as the focal point of the blame. It wasn’t long before lawmakers rolled back some of the reforms. In 2017, the state Legislature passed a bill that restored jail sentences for the smallest theft crimes, for people who commit crimes out on bail and for first-time Class C felonies, like car theft.

Those changes have since led to a “noticeable uptick” in prison admissions the past year and a half, the report says

The Legislature also passed bills during the 2018 session to give judges more discretion in bail decisions and allow out-of-state criminal history to be considered with bail.

The reforms have helped Alaska avert a crisis, the commission’s new report says. The state was on track to spend millions more on its growing prison population and maybe even build a new prison. The newest prison, Goose Creek Correctional Center, opened a decade ago and cost $250 million.

The state has invested more than $40 million in treatment and rehabilitation programs to date, and the report identifies a number of additional “real and pressing needs” in the state’s behavioral health and substance abuse treatment systems. That includes more physical facilities to treat drug addiction, and places to evaluate and treat the seriously mentally ill outside of the walls of a jail.

The report couldn’t pinpoint a dollar amount for much the state has saved so far. But it contends incarceration costs would have been much higher without the reforms.

Here’s some other conclusions in the report:

  • — The prison population has declined nearly 5 percent since 2016, though prison admissions have increased 11 percent between January and July of this year. That’s likely because of an increased response to crime, the report said, such as more staffing for law enforcement and prosecutors and changes enacted by the state Legislature. The drop in prisoners allowed the Department of Corrections to close the Palmer Correctional Facility, but the report suggested the rising admission rates may be a sign of the prison population trend reversing in the future. As of now, the reforms have allowed Alaska to absorb the new inmates without needing to build a new prison, the report says.
  • Incarceration rates do not affect crime rates, research shows. Crime rates started increasing in Alaska prior to the 2016 reforms, the report says. It’s tough to pinpoint the cause of crime, which can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as the economy, alcohol and drug abuse, demographics and policing. The report says the state will see “diminishing returns” from incarcerating more people. One example the report provides: Alaska passed tougher sentencing laws for sexual assault in 2006. More than a decade later, the rate of sexual assault hasn’t declined, and is now more than twice the national average.
  • More people are being released on bail. Before the reforms, low-risk defendants stayed in jail because they couldn’t afford bail, while high-risk defendants who could afford bail were getting out and committing new crimes. About half of all people who were arrested were being held in jail. Now, after SB 91, about one-quarter of those arrested are being held in jail, as the state shifted to making bail less about a person’s ability to pay and more about their likelihood to make court dates. That shift has had no impact on attendance rates at court hearings, the report said.
  • Racial disparities in bail may be decreasing. The report cites a recently analysis suggesting the reforms may be leading to a decline in historically disproportionately higher rates of pretrial detention for Alaska Native defendants.
  • More people are being booked into jail for violations while out on bail. That may be a result of increased supervision through the new Pretrial Enforcement Division, known as P.E.D., officials said. There is not specific data available that breaks down the violations into new crimes and violations of conditions of release, like a defendant drinking alcohol when a judge ordered them not to.
  • The opioid crisis has likely affected crime rates. The number of opioid overdoses rose from 55 deaths in 2010 to 99 deaths in 2017, when more people died from overdose than murder. Opioid death numbers remain small in comparison to other causes of death, the report notes, but the rate can be a sign of the extent of rising addiction in Alaska, and demand for the drugs can fuel crime.
  • The corrections budget has not necessarily declined along with the prison population. “Unanticipated medical costs” led to supplemental budget allocations to the Department of Corrections in each of the past two fiscal years, the report says.

Claman said Friday the state had to take action sooner than later. Corrections costs were growing unsustainable as the state was approaching a huge budget crisis, he said. He said the Legislature has invested what it could, and the reforms always included a lot of positive changes, like tougher sentences for murder and sex offenses and heftier fines for misdemeanor theft.

In the meantime, the Legislature is working to fix what isn’t working, he said.

Barbara Dunham, the project attorney for the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, said she finds the report encouraging. It looks as though the state is moving the right direction, she said. But she also said a lot of it was preliminary, and it’s been hard to track all the changes. Four years is a short time in terms of trends, Dunham said.

The report warns that if the arrest rate continues to rise, if new legislation is enacted that increases prison time, and if if prison stays lengthen at the same time as admission rates rise, the state prison system will once again be maxed out.

At that point, “Alaska will be faced with the same problem of unsustainable prison growth that it had in 2015,” the report says.