Alaska criminal justice reform will fall short without treatment for addicts

Alaska's controversial crime bill passed through both houses of the Legislature,  was signed by the governor and is now beginning to be implemented by the courts. Love it or hate it, SB 91 is now law.

The law is sweeping reform in sentencing and classification of crimes that will lead to many prisoners being released earlier than expected, future sentences being smaller than what we have seen in the past and fewer people being arrested. The majority of these people, regardless of their crimes, are drug addicts.

So, the question becomes, what's next?

The one piece, really the most important piece, that was missing from SB 91 is just that, the "what's next?" With a large number of addicts either reintegrating  into society or remaining there, Alaska needs to make a serious commitment to providing drug and alcohol treatment, which is seriously lacking around the state.

There has been a lot of criticism of this crime bill, much of it coming from those who work in law enforcement. That criticism cannot be discounted. These are the men and women on the front lines of Alaska's crime problem. They see firsthand the damage done by substance abuse and the variety of crimes committed by addicts to help feed their addiction. Make no mistake, many of these crimes have real, tangible victims, and those in law enforcement know that all too well.

However, warehousing prisoners, particularly for drug crimes or crimes committed in the pursuit of feeding addiction, has not worked in the past and it would be unreasonable to believe that it would work going forward.

So here we are, in post SB 91 Alaska. To really move into a healthier and safer future, Alaska needs to look around at different communities that have thought outside the box and have had success.


A little over a year ago in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Police Chief Leonard Campanello, frustrated by an increasing drug problem in his city, decided they would stop arresting drug users who approached them and asked for help. The department would offer immediate assistance in helping those who asked find treatment.

According to a Jan. 24 New York Times article, "Since the program began, 391 addicts have turned themselves in at the city's brick police station. About 40 percent are from the Gloucester area; the rest come from all over the country. All have been placed in treatment."

The article also points out that "56 police departments in 17 states have started programs modeled on or inspired by Gloucester's, with 110 more preparing to do so." Police Chief Campanello has started a mini revolution in the drug treatment world, and it's being noticed at the highest levels.

President Barack Obama named Campanello a "Champion of Change" at a ceremony at the White House in April.

It's time for Alaska to take a step forward and fully embrace what is being attempted with SB 91.

Alaska's problem with heroin and meth is out of control, and addicts have very few places to go to get help. Alaska needs more treatment centers and detox facilities around the state.

With Alaska facing a budget crisis that includes layoffs on the oil patch, a nearly $4 billion budget gap and a declining credit rating that has been downgraded twice this year already, many might be skeptical thinking that this type of treatment will cost a lot of money Alaska just doesn't have.

It doesn't have to cost that much, however. It will take leadership from the governor's office and cooperation with the Legislature to work in partnership with nonprofits to help provide treatment and temporary housing for those in need.

Many of Alaska's addicts are begging for help. They want to change their lives and become productive members of society. They have been to hell and back again, often doing so multiple times. These aren't people begging for society to give them a free ride. These are strong and proud people who, because of their poor decisions and their addiction, have hit the ground hard and need a helping hand to get them back on the right path.

You may not think they deserve it, and many of them would tell you you're right. However, it doesn't really matter if they deserve it or not. The truth is, with or without this crime bill, these men and women would still be hitting our streets again eventually. In order to save money, create a better society and, honestly, to do the right thing, Alaska has a vested interest in helping them become healthy and productive members of society.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s. Email, michaeldingman@gmail.com.

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Mike Dingman

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s.