Crime & Courts

Has SB 91 affected crime rates? Anchorage police say it’s not clear.

Anchorage police officials say there is no data to conclusively link the state's new criminal justice reform law, known as Senate Bill 91, to a rise in certain crimes.

But in recent months, amid mounting public frustration over the legislation, the agency has been trying to come up with those answers.

Police officials have been pulling the city's various arrest reports into a single database. The database, essentially a spreadsheet on internal computers, shows who is committing crimes repeatedly, whether that person went to jail and whether they paid bail or got a ticket.

The goal is to help answer questions that police leaders and citizens have.

"Is SB 91 really having an impact, particularly on repeat offenders?" said Sean Case, the police captain overseeing the effort.

Gov. Bill Walker signed the bill into law in June 2016, and has called for a special session in October to re-examine it. While the legislation was designed to save money in the prison system and reduce recidivism rates by giving offenders a chance to rehabilitate outside jail, Walker said lawmakers need to look at returning to tougher penalties. Business owners, elected officials and residents have linked the legislation to an uptick in crime in the past year, particularly property crimes.

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Mayor Ethan Berkowitz alluded to the law as one factor in escalating crime in the city in an interview last week, along with drug use.

Case said the Anchorage Police Department does not want to be in the middle of policy discussions. He said it isn't necessarily the agency's job to validate public feelings about Senate Bill 91.

But at town halls and meetings of the Anchorage Assembly and community councils, people have been demanding explanations, Case said.

"We kind of feel that maybe we should find some answers for them," Case said.

The city prosecutor, Seneca Theno, was skeptical, saying in an interview that crime fluctuates from year to year and it's very difficult to draw clear cause-and-effect relationships.

But she noted that there's very little overlap between law enforcement, court and prosecution statistics, creating the gaps Case wants to address.

"SB 91 talks so much about bail. It's a huge part of the reform process," Theno said. "And yet no one is really doing a track of the types of offenders, and what the response is to the changes in bail."

Police and prosecutors suspect that separate judicial changes to the state's bail requirements for low-level crimes, known as the "bail schedule," have played a role in offender behavior.

For Case and other police officials, gathering the data on offenders and arrests is no easy task. The Anchorage Police Department relies on a decentralized mix of police reports and calls for service, stored in separate computer systems. A data analyst, Victoria Goss, has spent hours poring over reports, trying to pick out trends.

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Take shoplifting for example, Case said. Anchorage business owners are furious, he said, over what they say is a rise in shoplifting. Senate Bill 91 made petty shoplifting of less than $250 a ticket for first- and second-time offenders, largely taking jail time out of the equation.

In recommending changes to lower-level theft penalties, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission found that jail time was costing a lot of money but not reducing recidivism rates.

But Case said the easing of consequences for shoplifting has become, at least anecdotally, a "thorn in everyone's side." In Juneau, frustration over shoplifting recently led to a federally funded pilot project called the Juneau Avert Chronic Shoplifting Pilot Project. Instead of prosecuting people, which came with little consequences, officials will connect chronic shoplifters with case managers, in an effort to help solve underlying problems like substance abuse and mental illness.

Anchorage is not planning to pursue a similar project. Theno, the city prosecutor, said her office is instead writing a proposal to restore a monitoring program for domestic violence offenders.

Even so, shoplifting is of interest to Anchorage police, with officials constantly hearing complaints from business owners. The data doesn't yet clearly show whether there's been a rise in shoplifting in Anchorage, and what the factors are, Case said.

In his office at APD headquarters Tuesday morning, Case pointed to a chart on his computer showing arrest data on shoplifting charges. The chart appeared to show that shoplifting in 2017 is so far in line with Anchorage's five-year average, with a slight uptick one month this spring.

At the same time, the chart did not show the number of arrests for stealing less than $250 — the type of crime that affects the most businesses.


That reflects a problem in how APD's data is collected, Case said. He said it's an example of where police are working now to understand what's being captured and where it's being stored.

"We just have to be able to get a definitive answer, to say conclusively, we can link SB 91 to an increase in certain crimes," Case said.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.