An American Indian, an Ojibwa tribal judge, shared this perspective on our Western criminal justice system:
A young man, Pete, doesn't know how to swim so we take him to the pond and tell him to learn. Pete jumps in, thrashes about yet goes under so we jump in and save him. Next we take him to a large box on top the hill, tell him that he has to learn to swim and then lock him up inside the box. After a day or two, we bring Pete back to the pond, tell him he has to swim and throw him in. Pete slaps about, but flounders and sinks, so we rescue him again. We take him back to the box on the hill, lock him up again and repeat that until he learns to swim, his stay in the box will only get longer and longer each time.
His point is that the pond is life, and for an armful of reasons, not everyone has the skills to live it as the rest of us try to. Reasons include fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; adverse childhood experiences; lack of proper parenting skills or good role models; trauma; disparate socio-economic factors that yields less opportunity, confidence, and/or hope; and of course, substance abuse, to name just a few.
These folks have trouble swimming in our society, yet we lock them up telling them that they will remain so until they learn to respect and play well with others. Do they learn? Alaska's recidivism rate has two out of three felons released from prison returning to prison. What do you think?
Despite all we see and hear about other countries, our country has more people behind bars than any other country in the world. Numerically, the U.S. leads with 2.3 million prisoners, China is No. 2, yet with four times our total population and 1.6 million prisoners. Counting prisoners per capita, the U.S. is still No. 1, with Russia second.
Why should you care? Money, yours and ours. Our response to crime is only to build more boxes on the hill. That produces an outcome in which cops, courts, and corrections must consume an ever increasing percentage of our federal and states' budgets. You will pay higher taxes, and/or see less funding for education, highways, and all our other vital services.
Every study out there agrees that intervention at an earlier stage is far more effective and less expensive than trying to reform someone who had a lifetime of crime. Currently, remote villages without village public safety officers, or village/tribal police must wait for the arrival of an Alaska State Trooper to respond to crime -- arrivals that are limited by both weather and trooper availability. In reality, the lower priority requests for AST in rural areas are frequently not even made by villagers because of a historical protracted response
So when no one calls, this behavior not only continues, but often escalates until it breaches felony level and then becomes a priority. Certainly AST strives to answer every request, but with a finite number of troopers they must prioritize their responses. Alaska has neither the budget nor personnel to place its systems into every village, so why not encourage and empower residents in every community to become more involved in their own safety? Why not recognize, assist, and work with villages to organize their courts to address their local misdemeanor crimes of public disorder?
Fact is, the state only has to agree to this effort, and there are those who would see it done. If all of us invest a little faith, trust, and teamwork now for such earlier intervention, it could yield a savings far beyond the funding of criminal justice.
We could and should work together for our brighter financial future, and with the understanding that every Alaskan is worth saving. Then maybe we can use some of that money we saved to build more personal skills, more societal success, and a whole lot fewer boxes.
Walt Monegan is a former commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety and former chief of police in Anchorage.