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SB 91’s pretrial reforms keep Alaskans safe

  • Author: Cherise Fanno Burdeen
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 24
  • Published January 24

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Since the passage of Senate Bill 91, communities across Alaska have been engaged in an important and ongoing conversation about how safety and justice can coexist. The pretrial reforms enacted in the bill led to an increase in pretrial release rates, the capacity to supervise people released pending trial, and increased usage of support services in lieu of detention, with no decrease in rates of appearance in court.

SB 91 has successfully fulfilled its intended purpose in improving the fairness, safety and effectiveness of bail and the state’s pretrial justice system as whole. As the Alaska Legislature considers the direction of criminal justice reform, state leaders would do well to maintain the pretrial justice components of SB 91. Wiping away policies that safely reduce jail populations while carefully evaluating who is released and who is not won’t keep Alaskans safe, it will leave us worse than where we started.

Before SB 91, Alaska’s criminal justice system was broken: From 2005 to 2014, the jail and prison population increased nearly three times faster than the overall residential population. If the status quo hadn’t changed, Alaska would have overshot the existing capacity of jails and prisons by 2017, costing Alaskans at least $169 million that could be better spent on priorities that meaningfully strengthen communities and public safety, like education or health care. Policymakers can’t have a productive conversation about repealing SB 91 without also asking who will end up paying for that prison growth.

Much of Alaska’s incarceration boom was due to an 81 percent increase in pretrial detention – jailing legally innocent people before trial – with money bail at the root of the phenomenon. Even though Alaska law presumed that people accused of crimes would be released on personal recognizance — promising to return to court without having to pay to get out — the vast majority of people were instead assigned a money bond, meaning they were required to buy their freedom. What determined whether someone stayed in jail before trial was not a legal determination or a safety determination, but a wealth-based determination – can you afford to post bond?

The pretrial reforms in SB 91 marked a significant step to reinvest state dollars in a more effective approach to criminal justice for Alaska. As with any piece of policy reform, voters are right to keep a watchful eye on the implementation of SB 91, but its pretrial justice improvements are already beginning to show positive results since they were implemented last January.

The new Pretrial Enforcement Division is working with Alaska courts to limit the use of money bail and instead base pretrial release decisions on an evidence-based pretrial assessment that analyzes someone’s likelihood to appear in court or re-arrest while released. The Pretrial Enforcement Division also provides pretrial supervision to people released into the community, to help ensure pretrial success and protect public safety — the first time Alaska has ever had a statewide system for pretrial supervision.

Fifty percent fewer Alaskans are being held because they can’t pay bond – and therefore are able to stay employed, pay their rent or mortgages, and continue to care for their families while their trial is pending. There are encouraging signs that the policies are reducing racial and ethnic disparities among those released before trial. And those people released before trial are being monitored and supported for success while in the community.

Criminal justice reform is an ongoing process that often requires diligent monitoring and sometimes recalibration. Alaskans should continue to ask hard questions to make sure that pretrial supervision is not overutilized, communities stay safe, people released from jail have the resources they need, and that the spirit of this reform is matched in the impact of its implementation. SB 91’s pretrial reforms are a landmark accomplishment with the potential to permanently transform Alaska’s justice system for the better. Please, stay the course.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen is the Chief Executive Officer of the Pretrial Justice Institute.

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