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Senate Bill 64: A crime bill for a criminal system of justice

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published January 25, 2015

It is known the U.S. has approximately 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners. Recently the Pew Research Center reported Alaska having the highest rate of inmate recidivism of all 50 states, with nearly two-thirds of those released re-incarcerated within a mere 36 months. If "correction" indeed occurred by way of Alaska's Department of Corrections, recidivists would be rare.

According to a Jan. 4, 2014, ADN story, Alaska's inmate population has increased eight times the rate of its residential population since 1971. Chief Justice Dana Fabe told legislators in February of that year that the court received 33 percent more criminal appeals in the first six months of its term over the entire previous one. Readers who do math better than most politicians may conclude that rather than building a utopia with our wealth, we've become a wasteful police state with masses of victimless nonviolent citizens locked in warehouses of idleness, at costs and numbers per capita exceeding any in the world.

Abuse of power by lawmakers in efforts to legislate morality and appear tough on crime results in thousands locked up needlessly using money better spent reforming those who have done actual harm. Thousands of Alaskans know the hard truth that the cure hurts worse than the disease, with drug and alcohol laws harming them and their families much more than the drug and alcohol use ever did. Whether using controlled substances or driving without a valid license, victimless crime is not real crime, but rather the byproduct of immoral misuse of political power with those jailed for victimless crimes being political prisoners.

Excluding the cost of police, prosecutors, courts and social welfare programs needed by inmates and their families, the Alaska Department of Corrections' yearly budget appropriation is almost $350 million. Alaska's new $240 million Goose Creek prison is full and becoming overcrowded. Amid teacher layoffs and shrinking revenues, constrained by a 90-day session, legislators enacted a crime bill (Senate Bill 64) antithetical to their purpose of reducing recidivism and prison costs, kicking the can down the road establishing a Criminal Justice Commission to perform work they are unable to.

Creating 24 new state positions in probation and parole, SB 64 will further exacerbate overcrowding costs via its primary strategy known as "Swift and Certain," whereby mandating police and probation officers immediately re-incarcerate those released on bail or parole for any and all violations of release conditions. The delusional theory behind Swift and Certain is based on a belief that fear of jail will magically persuade lawbreakers to obey arcane zero-tolerance-like strictures, recidivism becoming a thing of the past. Already half of Alaska's recidivists are jailed not on new charges, but because they possessed or consumed alcohol, were found on premises where alcohol is, or tested positive for use of a controlled substance, usually marijuana. In spite of present laws and policies and implementation of Swift and Certain, a higher law, the law of human nature, wins out, as most of those released drink beer, smoke marijuana, use controlled substances and/or associate with other felons who do. Alaska throws good money after bad in continuously failed attempts to prohibit much felon behavior that for not being on probation is legal, and becomes so again the moment probation ends.

Alaska's Swift and Certain strategy will succeed in reducing recidivism and its costs about as well as Alaska's law revoking occupational and personal driver's licenses from those delinquent on child support payments succeeds in enabling them to become current.

The 13-member Criminal Justice Commission created by SB 64 may do its work free of politics, proffering findings and recommendations for future legislation. Its makeup includes judges, legislators and other appointees or their designees from across almost the entire criminal justice spectrum.

Conspicuously omitted, however, is anyone accused of a crime falsely or not, arrested, held without bail or on third-party bail, coerced into pleading or having gone to trial, convicted guilty or not, sentenced presumptively, incarcerated far from home, or for that matter, anyone who worked a 40-cent-per-hour prison job, was released on mandatory parole or probation, violated for a technicality and remanded, then who chose to "flat-time" any remaining sentence in order to get off "paper" and avoid unrealistic conditions seemingly designed for failure. There is a wide pool of such Alaskans whose knowledge would prove beneficial.

The commission's task is to evaluate sentencing laws and practices, alternatives to incarceration, effectiveness of probation, parole, treatment and practices of other states. Hopefully commissioners will exceed their mandate to observe other countries, too.

SB 64 provides a genuine opportunity to slow down and even reverse our runaway train of a justice system when we can least afford waste while real crimes of theft and violence remain pervasive.

Now is our chance to study "medicalization" of our public health nuisance, drug abuse and addiction, and study reserving criminalization techniques for property crimes.

As to DUI manslaughter, universally deplored, we should consider whether endlessly arresting multitudes emulating behavior that was their grandparents' post-Prohibition birthright but now a crime resulting in thousands of Alaskans unemployable and without driving privileges, is preventing tragedy that still occurs or doing more harm than good. At the least, let's modify laws so people sleeping in, working on or relaxing in a motionless vehicle with the key in the ignition are no longer jailed or reduced to welfare. This practice protects no one.

Surely we can do better in Alaska, where if we're not a Palin at a party, we are routinely charged with assault or domestic violence for breaking a dish, shaking a clenched fist or shouting into a phone and scaring someone. Extremism, while contributing to alarming statistics, doesn't achieve our goal of eliminating the scourge of actual violence.

The Federalist Papers -- authored by our Constitution's framers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay -- encouraged jury nullification whereby jurors could check governmental power if a penalty doesn't fit a crime, or acquit defendants if laws are unjust or punishments draconian. So called "informed jurors" can help mitigate the authority of police, who make arrests rather than investigate or resolve problems, and prosecutors who seek convictions rather than facts. Swayed by evidence of petty or heinous crime jurors want to convict someone, though not always the guilty party. Accordingly, the late U.S. attorney and senator, Arlen Spector, promoted the use of "Scot's Law," allowing a third verdict in addition to guilty or not guilty, that of "not proven."

DNA evidence exonerated 13 of 25 prisoners convicted and on Illinois death row in cases where DNA evidence was available. Brooklyn, New York's district attorney formed a 10-prosecutor team to review wrongful conviction claims, freeing an innocent man held 30 years. As a start, Alaska's attorney general should review the 1986 case of Donald McDonald, convicted of murder with no body, physical evidence or eyewitnesses, yet without DNA evidence to exonerate him. (See freemacproject.net.)

Should we continue to call prisons "correctional" centers when many convicted of non­premeditated crimes in Alaska aren't even eligible for consideration of parole until having served 33 years? The maximum prison sentence in Denmark is 21 years.

With lawmakers, Gov. Bill Walker faces the daunting task of reducing state operating costs in times of steeply declining revenues. SB 64's Criminal Justice Commission could evolve Alaska's system from worst to first, and if commissioners and elected officials are open-minded and intellectually honest, let's wish them Godspeed.

Sustaining three victimless felony convictions, two for driving, another for gardening, H. Thompson Prentzel III has served over seven years in prison. He arrived in Alaska in 1984 and was named ASUA President's "Student of the Year" at UAF in 1985. When not incarcerated, he resides in the Ullrhaven subdivision atop Ester Dome, overlooking Fairbanks. Temporarily resting in the gated community of Wildwood Correctional Center, he will soon, albeit disenfranchised and eligible for food stamps, be available and willing to serve on Alaska's Criminal Justice Commission.

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.

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