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State tries reducing incarceration, upping rehab, but jury is still out on reform

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 22, 2016
  • Published October 22, 2016

FAIRBANKS — For the comprehensive overhaul of the justice system in Alaska to succeed, "it has to be given an opportunity to live," the chairman of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission says.

But not everyone seems to understand that SB 91, one of the most complex and far-reaching bills adopted in many years, cannot be judged a success or failure overnight.

"What's happening right now, if you read the newspaper, is a really unfortunate consequence," Justice Commission Chairman Greg Razo said Friday at a panel discussion on justice at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. In this environment, he said, "any crime that happens is blamed on SB 91."

"What we see is a tremendous need for training with law enforcement, with corrections, with prosecutors, with the court system," he said.

Gov. Bill Walker signed the 123-page measure in July and many elements have yet to be implemented, but the spread of inaccurate information about the law poses a threat to its acceptance, panel participants said.

Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill, a prime backer of the bill, said that some police have "sometimes been misinformed because the first iterations of the law had some provisions in there that have gotten into urban legend."

"I don't want the police to think that we're trying to make their life more difficult; we're just trying to make it so that they don't have to pick people up so often," said Coghill.

The state spent $184 million on its jails in 2005. By 2014, the cost had climbed to $314 million, but more money hasn't brought better results. Two out of three people released from state custody make a return trip within three years.

Many of the public presentations about the law have been heavy on justice system jargon, so public understanding has lagged.

The key thing is that the law provides fewer reasons to lock people up and more ways for prisoners to get out of jail sooner.

Supporters hope this means that hundreds of jail beds will be emptied in the years to come, which will lower the costs of the system. And that should allow more resources to be directed to rehab.

The approach that got us here — politicians promising to get tough on crime by punishing people for as long as possible — is expensive and ineffective, with new jails costing a quarter-billion dollars.

What remains to be seen is whether a high-profile crime or two will again ignite the political fervor in Alaska for politicians to show how aggressive they are on crime by increasing prison terms to punish miscreants.

The new law "limits the use of incarceration in all phases of the criminal justice process," the Department of Law said in a 28-page summary June 17 that provided the best overview.

"Incarceration is initially limited by reclassifying certain criminal conduct to lower level offenses," wrote John Skidmore, the director of the criminal division.

For instance, the law reclassified felony drug possession cases, with the exception of the "date rape drug," as misdemeanors and "mandates no active term of imprisonment for the first offense," he said. The law also defines property crimes of less than $1,000 as misdemeanors and calls for no imprisonment for property crimes below $250.

"All of these measures will limit the use of incarceration as a sanction by redefining the unlawful conduct encompassed by those offenses," he wrote.

It turns seven misdemeanors into violations — including driving with a suspended license — and gets rid of the mandatory three-day jail term for a first drunken-driving conviction, which can now be served at home on electronic monitoring. The law also ends the requirement that a first-time DUI offender perform 24 hours of community service.

The law encourages police officers to issue citations instead of making arrests in a variety of instances. It decreases sentences "for every type of crime other than homicides and sex offenses," Skidmore said.

"For example, the presumptive sentence for a class C felony offense committed by a first-felony offender is reduced to a presumed probationary term, with no active term of imprisonment," Skidmore wote. "The bill reduces the maximum length of probation for all offenses and creates mechanisms for early termination of the probation actually imposed."

There are dozens of changes under the law that will change the way the police, prosecutors, the courts and probation officers administer justice.

The law also makes it easier for former prisoners to have at least some driving privileges restored and qualify for food stamps.

Only time will tell if the law will meet the exceptionally ambitious goals of its sponsors: reduce the jail population by 13 percent by 2024; protect the rights of victims; increase public safety; enhance treatment options; combat addiction; keep most prisoners from becoming repeat offenders; and save $200 million over the next eight years.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@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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