Here's a headline you are not likely to read: "State Senators and the Parnell Administration Work Toward Crime Solutions." But guess what? It's true. While our differences on oil taxes got most of the press, lots of good collaborative work was done in Juneau to address Alaska's stubbornly high rates of crime.
The Senate Judiciary Committee kicked off the year with a Crime Summit that brought criminal justice leaders from across Alaska to Juneau for an intensive two-day hearing. An expert from Washington State gave an eye-opening presentation to the group on the long term reduction in crime rates that comes from pre-kindergarten attendance. That's right. In addition to making better students, pre-kindergarten helps prevent future crime. This year also marked the end of a very successful three-year pilot pre-K program conducted in selected urban and rural schools. The pilot's strong results and the expert's presentation helped add $6 million to pre-K funding this year.
Gov. Sean Parnell's good work on reducing domestic violence and sexual assault brought his sex trafficking bill to the Legislature, where many hands aided its passage. A provision put forward by Sen. Bill Wielechowski added a greatly improved definition of human trafficking to the bill. By removing the requirement that a state border be crossed, we can now more swiftly move to protect young Alaskans who are enticed to leave their rural homes for urban trouble. Another excellent bill, sponsored by Sen. Lesil McGuire, responded to a Judiciary Committee presentation by the Children's Justice Act Task Force. Her measure addresses deficiencies in our laws in regard to serious assaults on children as well as child starvation, and will make vital changes to protect Alaska's youngest and most vulnerable population from abuse and intentional neglect.
The Legislature and administration are always sensitive to the needs of crime victims, and this year I sponsored legislation to address delays in criminal trials. In 1994 Alaskans passed a constitutional amendment giving crime victims, among other rights, the promise of a "timely disposition" to their case. While this seems to go hand in hand with the defendant's right to a speedy trial, in reality many complex (and often horrendous) crimes often do not go to trial for years.
Consider the family of Bonnie Craig, whose killer was finally indicted in 2007 for that brutal 1994 murder. It took another four and a half years to get that case to trial and verdict. Every delay meant more heartache for the survivors. The bill I sponsored, which enjoyed unanimous bipartisan support, requires prosecutors to notify victims of delays and judges to stop and consider the effect of delays on the victim or, in the case of a murder, the victim's family.
Rural Alaska is also benefiting from this collaborative process. A Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) Task Force led by Sen. Donny Olson in 2007 called for increasing VPSOs. Research by the acclaimed UAA Justice Center shows that when villages have a VPSO, sexual assault cases are more than three times more likely to be accepted for prosecution and levels of physical injury to victims are significantly reduced. The governor, to his credit, has consistently added funds for new VPSOs to his budget requests, including 10 more this year. These officers will make a big difference in the villages where they serve.
Sen. Johnny Ellis, a long-time advocate for dealing with the substance abuse problems associated with crime, also worked with the administration this year to provide more alcohol treatment to prisoners, as well as more half-way house beds for probationers who otherwise reenter communities with little or no oversight.
The new Goose Creek Prison cost the state over $250 million to build and will need many millions more each year to run. This enormous price tag - five new high schools could have been built instead! -- has helped galvanize support for "smart justice" reforms. By working together, the Legislature and the administration continue to seek ways to reduce crime, to hold offenders accountable, and to build a safer Alaska. And that's good news.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, has served in the state Senate since 2003.