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Alaska criminal justice reform bill has been unfairly attacked

  • Author: Sen. Coghill
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published May 11, 2016

Senate Bill 91's entire focus is on improving public safety and getting better public safety outcomes for each dollar we spend. The bill reduces spending on things that the research shows don't reduce crime, and reinvests $85 million of those savings over the next six years into things that are proven to reduce crime, like substance abuse treatment, pretrial supervision, reentry services and violence prevention.

Some would like to paint these reforms as "light on crime" while defending the existing system which has given us such poor results. Some have denied (or chosen not to read) the large body of research supporting these reforms, while ignoring the successes in other parts of the country.

We aren't reinventing the wheel — dozens of states have improved public safety by implementing these reforms. Texas embarked on criminal justice reform nearly a decade ago. Kentucky made major reforms in 2011 and has seen a 17 percent reduction in crime. South Dakota's new reforms have caused an 8 percent reduction in crime. South Carolina has experienced a 12 percent reduction in crime since implementing its reforms.

This is one of the most vetted bills I have ever worked on. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission was created in 2014 and tasked with making recommendations for reform to the Legislature. The commission worked for nearly a year, thoughtfully and deliberately, using a data-driven process and relying on years of research and best practices from other states. SB 91 is the culmination of this work. The commission's report is available online at www.ajc.state.ak.us. Since SB 91's introduction, it has gone through five legislative committees and received over 50 hearings.

We have met for hundreds of hours with various law enforcement and victims' groups, prosecutors and concerned citizens. In response, through the legislative process, committees have made hundreds of changes to SB 91. Since making those changes, the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is supportive and looks forward to the potential of reinvestment to achieve better public safety results.

It's time for me to set the record straight. Increasing sentences in the mid-2000s was easy. We never paused to ask whether what we were doing would actually reduce crime -- it was just assumed that it would. It was commonly believed that increasing sentences by a year or two would magically change criminal behavior or act as a deterrent.

For years, we'd react to high-profile crimes and get "tough" in election years. Nobody wanted to appear "pro-crime," as if there were such a thing. Since then, our prison population has grown 27 percent, three times faster than the state's resident population. We even built a new prison in 2012 and have been waiting for the positive results.

Unfortunately, all of that spending did not improve public safety or reduce crime. Alaska has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country, along with high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault. It's just unacceptable.

Getting to where we are today was easy. Reforming the system is not easy. Trust me, I know. Since introducing SB 91, there has been misinformed opposition all along the way. We've heard some outrageous things about our own bill: The focus isn't on public safety; the bill doesn't contain any rehabilitation; some felonies are being turned into violations; and reforms like this are not working in other states. These comments are just false and misrepresent the truth.

If you believe longer sentences work to reduce crime, this bill is not for you. Those who are claiming this bill is "too much, too fast" are those who have not taken the opportunity to involve themselves in the process. Criminal justice reform will not wait for those who have not tried to become part of the solution.

Some of the concerns have been honest misunderstandings. Others have been the result of deliberate misleading by opponents of the bill. It's easy to cast stones and spread half-truths, but many in the Legislature are standing strong and doing the right thing for Alaska. I applaud them.

SB 91 is about holding offenders accountable, reducing recidivism and diverting ineffective corrections spending into strategies that reduce crime.

Sen. John Coghill, a Republican representing North Pole, is the Alaska Senate majority leader.

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