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Criminal justice reform is right on the money for rural Alaska

  • Author: Julie Kitka
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published April 3, 2016

Years of commissions and studies have repeatedly shown that Alaska needs criminal justice reform to reduce crime, restore victims, reform offenders and lower costs. Rural Alaska Native hub communities and villages know this to be particularly true, as many experience the highest rates of physical and sexual violence in the country.

However, with no law enforcement officers or courts of their own, many Native communities and villages are forced to deal with victimization in stages. In the first stage, the community or village has to cope with the initial victimization of the crime itself. In the second stage, the community or village has to handle the revictimization of the family or individual by an Alaska criminal justice system that desperately needs better, smarter and more cost-effective solutions to address the enormous geographic size of the state, the remoteness of our Native communities and villages, and the exorbitant costs of delivering public services — including public safety — to rural Alaska.

Thankfully the Alaska Legislature is taking up a comprehensive reform package this session through Senate Bill 91 and House Bill 205 (companion bills). This legislation is designed to decrease the likelihood of an Alaskan inmate reoffending upon release, and increase further reductions of the state's crime rates for every dollar that is spent. The legislation will significantly benefit all Alaskans, particularly those residing in rural hub communities or villages.

The bills stem from the work of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which was created by the Legislature in 2014 to develop data-driven and research-based policy recommendations to safely reduce Alaska's prison population. The commission found shocking disparities in the state's incarcerated population. Specifically, while Alaska Natives make up 15 percent of the state's general population, our people represent 36 percent of those held in jail awaiting trial, 34 percent of those sentenced to time in prison, and 42 percent of those in prison for a technical violation of probation or parole conditions. The commission's findings echo those from almost a quarter century ago, the 1992 report of the Alaska Natives Commission.

Alaska Native families and individuals have consistently experienced disparate treatment by the state's criminal justice system. We have heard much lately about the inadequacy or nonexistence of law enforcement officers, courts and support services in many rural communities and villages. It requires mention that after an investigation, arrest and conviction, these same inadequacies continue. Services and supports for crime victims are lacking or nonexistent.

Moreover, incarceration has harmful and far-reaching consequences for Alaska Native individuals and families. Far too often rural communities and villages lose members to prison who either never return or who return forever altered by their experience, many of whom committed nonviolent, low-level crimes. The criminal justice system focuses nearly all of its resources on punishment rather than rehabilitation of the offender or restoration of the victim.

Like so many of those incarcerated, Alaska Native men and women often end up in prison for behavior related to substance abuse, alcoholism or mental illness. Without sufficient behavioral treatment facilities in rural hub communities, these issues escalate and Alaska prisons become de facto rehabilitation centers. As a result, Alaskans pay much more to address these problems with prison beds and get far worse results than if we would have invested in treatment-oriented rehabilitation programs.

Alaska's prison budget is more than $300 million a year. The prison population has grown 27 percent in the last decade, which is three times faster than our state's resident population. Despite having just built a $240 million prison a few years ago at Goose Creek, the state is projected to run out of prison beds next year. In our fiscal crisis, we simply cannot afford to keep staying the course.

The commission's recommendations, incorporated into SB 91/HB 205, reduce pretrial incarceration for those who are low-risk but cannot afford bail. They divert people from prison for low-level crimes and adjust criminal sentences to get better outcomes. They make penalties for probation and parole violations more proportional to the problem behavior. These changes will not only save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, they will directly benefit Alaska Native families, individuals and communities.

Even better, much of the savings from these reforms would be reinvested into the things that work the best to keep our communities safe and healthy: treatment services, re-entry services for people coming home from prison, community-based supervision, violence prevention programs and services for crime victims.

I strongly urge the Legislature to adopt the reforms outlined in SB 91/HB 205 into law before this session ends. Improve the state's criminal justice system now and protect and restore rural Alaska Native hub communities and villages.

Julie Kitka is president of the Alaska Federation of Natives.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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