Gov. Mike Dunleavy ran on a platform to improve public safety, and he again claimed this as his top priority in his State of the State address. But his proposed budget does not reflect his rhetoric; instead, it poses a triple threat to public safety. First, while the cuts are not as deep to law enforcement and prosecutors, the budget fails to add critical resources needed to directly fight crime. Second, the budget guts the Medicaid system — the primary means of funding the substance abuse and mental health treatment necessary to fight our opioid and methamphetamine epidemic that is driving crime. And third, the budget cripples our local communities by both cutting funding and taking away the ability to tax – ignoring that our municipalities and local governments are on the front lines of dealing with the drug crisis and keeping our communities safe.
While serving as Attorney General under Gov. Bill Walker, I led the state’s public safety initiatives. Our criminal justice system is just that – a system – and we need a multifaceted approach to improve public safety. Crime started rising dramatically in 2014, which strongly correlates to the opioid crisis. From 2014 to 2017 our state saw a 26 percent increase in crime. During this same time, our state was facing a fiscal crisis and all departments were cut – we lost a significant number of prosecutors and troopers. It takes time to rebuild. As a state, we are still below 2014 numbers for prosecutors and law enforcement, while crime rates are still on the rise.
As the Legislature develops its budget, additional resources are needed for prosecutors, state troopers and the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program. The governor’s proposed $3 million cut to the VPSO program is shortsighted. Although larger municipalities can supplement law enforcement with local police forces, the state is constitutionally responsible to keep the rest of the state safe. For more than 40 years, the state has partnered with tribes to have VPSOs be that public safety supplement to the state troopers in many villages without a trooper presence. Recruiting for both troopers and VPSOs has proved difficult, but the state must support increasing both trooper and VPSO numbers if we want a safer state. Gov. Sean Parnell promised a VPSO to every village that wanted one. We need to rebuild through increased funding so we can offer that again.
Our Legislature made a decision many years ago that, other than the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, the state would not directly provide mental health and substance abuse treatment. Instead, the Department of Health and Social Services is to help municipalities and nonprofit groups provide the needed services through grant funding to start programs, and Medicaid funding to continue those programs. Unfortunately, there simply are not enough services to deal with our current substance abuse issues. Last year, the Legislature appropriated $12 million over three years to have new crisis and detox facilities built and to expand substance abuse treatment statewide. More is needed. But the continued funding of even current programs, not only the new programs that received this seed money, is directly reliant on Medicaid funding. And Medicaid expansion meant that many of those leaving our prison system could seek drug treatment to be productive members of our community. Without a doubt, cutting Medicaid funding and doing away with Medicaid expansion as proposed will worsen our drug epidemic, leading to more crime.
As mentioned above, our local governments are on the front lines of law enforcement and the provision of social services. As costs are shifted to local governments and funding is further cut (whether through Medicaid or direct funding), the governor further proposes to tie local governments’ hands by not allowing them to raise money through certain taxes they have long counted on. Public safety starts in our communities. We need strong communities to be safe. And that requires state funding.
As a state, we are going to pay for public safety. We can do it through a budget that reflects those priorities, or we can do it through increased insurance rates as our crime rates continue to increase.
Jahna Lindemuth served as Attorney General under Gov. Bill Walker. She is now in private practice in Anchorage.
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