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Rollback of sentencing reform is a blank check for more prison beds

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, speaks on the Senate floor. The Alaska Senate met for a floor session on Jan. 18. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Being tough on crime is a luxury Alaska can't afford anymore. But we can still afford to improve public safety.

Bipartisan work by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission over the last few years showed that Alaska's policy of jailing first-time offenders was manufacturing criminals. People with a good chance of living productively lost that chance in prison. Their future victims suffered too.

Treatment for drug addiction and other underlying problems is cheaper and more effective. Research showed that diverting first-timers and low-level offenders to treatment would reduce crime and save money.

With Senate Bill 91, the Legislature adopted those ideas last year. And prisoner numbers have dropped slightly, which was one reason the Palmer Correctional Center closed last year, said Commissioner of Corrections Dean Williams.

But there was a cost. Victims, cops and prosecutors lost the sense of justice they feel when someone who commits a crime receives harsh punishment. Those feelings — not evidence — have powered a legislative move to roll back important changes in last year's legislation.

Lt. Kris Sell, a beloved and nationally recognized patrol officer in Juneau, lived on both sides of that divide.

As reported by the Juneau Empire, Sell joined the commission to represent law enforcement with a tough-on-crime perspective, believing, as her co-workers did, that locking up and punishing first-time offenders makes the community safer.

But listening to research during the commission's meetings, she learned that just wasn't true.

"As you run people through the criminal justice system, they become more dangerous," Sell told a Juneau group in 2015.

What's happening now doesn't have much to do with listening and learning. Police and victims have demanded a rollback of the law, with longer sentences. Sell's boss told the Empire she didn't represent other cops anymore. She resigned from the commission in March.

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, talks with Kris Sell, a Juneau police lieutenant, outside the Capitol. Sell, holding a sign that says “Spread kindness like confetti,” participated in a rally for encouragement of lawmakers. The Alaska Legislature opened its session at the State Capitol in Juneau on Jan. 17. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Over the winter, legislators in the Mat-Su valley area and Eagle River heard from angry constituents in town hall meetings over an explosion in crime supposedly driven by the new law — although it still is not entirely implemented.

Statistics didn't back up a crime wave, but people know they are unhappy, and that's real. Alaska is in the midst of a drug epidemic, Alaska State Troopers have been cut to some of the thinnest levels of police coverage in the U.S., and fewer prosecutors are on staff and are taking fewer cases.

As an Anchorage resident who pays property taxes for good police protection and supports new state taxes and Alaska Permanent Fund dividend cuts to pay for prosecutors and courts, I am not sympathetic with voters in the Valley who want something for nothing.

Valley residents outside Palmer and Wasilla get trooper protection free. Their legislators have been the biggest barrier to raising new revenue to solve Alaska's fiscal crisis. The Republican Senate majority wants much deeper budget cuts still — except, apparently, for prisons.

This is the freebie mentality that passes for conservatism in Alaska, demanding expensive, ineffective policy to satisfy a sense of retribution, while refusing to pay for it.

But the left is to blame too. The conservative champion of sentencing reform, Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, faced brutal attacks on the policy in his reelection campaign. Those union-funded ads probably helped sour the public on the new law.

It's a big, complex law and some corrections are non-controversial.

But the commission also bent to pressure and recommended a modest rollback of the relaxed sentences. Coghill supported the changes, the most important of which deals with first offenders of the lowest level of felonies. Crimes in the category include vehicle theft, drug offences and some assaults, among many others.

Under the law that passed, those offenders would normally get a suspended sentence of up to 18 months, meaning they wouldn't go to jail but would have jail time hanging over them if they did not complete conditions of sentencing, such as treatment. (For aggravated cases, judges could still give up to five years in jail.)

But police and prosecutors said jail time is needed as a deterrent and to push offenders toward treatment. The commission and Coghill agreed. The new bill, SB 54, would add 90 days in prison to the suspended sentence.

Then the bill got out of Coghill's control. He said the Department of Law, after losing at the commission, successfully lobbied legislators to increase the prison time up to a year.

That's expensive, because a lot of offenders fall into this category. An estimate said the change would cost more than $4 million a year, taking away roughly 20 percent of the cost savings of the original bill. But the Department of Corrections later withdrew that number, saying the cost is unknown.

Commissioner Williams told the Senate Finance Committee Friday that he could not predict the cost of this change on top of the already ongoing change. He said if the bill passes, the Legislature would probably have to approve a supplemental budget increase next year, after the cost is known.

That's a blank check. And a black eye to an administration that is pushing so hard to resolve the fiscal gap.

Gov. Bill Walker told me Friday the bill did need tuning up, but he didn't respond when I asked whether this is the right time to spend millions on stiffer sentences. Meanwhile, the Department of Law and Department of Corrections each seem to be advancing a different point of view to legislators.

Coghill's strategy is to strike a compromise, raising the presumptive jail time for lower-level felonies to 120 days. Senate Finance will take up the issue again on Monday.

In the meantime, this legislative session is running out and we need attention focused on cutting costs and finding revenue.

Insiders predict SB 54 will run out of steam before passing the House. That's good. Next year, enough time will have passed to evaluate the new sentencing law and make policy based on evidence.

When we reach that point — supposing we have also achieved a balanced budget and are not still depleting our savings — let's also consider investing in troopers, treatment and courts rather than prison beds.

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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