In 2020, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission recommended a “second look” law providing that juveniles sentenced for crimes they committed when they were less than 18 be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years. On March 29, Sen. Tom Begich introduced the recommended law as Senate Bill 114. Some context is helpful.
In the 1980s and ’90s, America launched a “tough-on-crime” era. As a prosecutor in Alaska during those decades, I advanced it. It led to mass incarceration that overfilled our prisons. With 4.4% of the global population, America has nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners — a rate four to seven times higher than other Western nations.
The cost has been monumental. Incarceration spending tripled between 1980 and 2014. In 2016, prisons cost us $80 billion per year. Science Daily reported research showing that price tag was a gross underestimation. It didn’t include societal costs of lost wages, lower earnings upon release, recidivism based on maladaptive behaviors learned in prison, the five-fold increased likelihood that children of the incarcerated would be incarcerated, are less likely to finish high school or attend college and are more likely to live in poverty or homelessness. The total cost exceeded $1 trillion and meant less money for reducing crime.
Some argue a decline in U.S. crime rates showed “tough-on-crime” worked. The fact that nearly every Western nation experienced similar declines without punitive policies disproves this. That, combined with a dismal recidivism rate — Alaska’s is the highest in the nation, at more than 66% — is clear evidence “tough-on-crime” failed.
The failed experiment encompassed juvenile offenders as well as adults. But science and the U.S. Supreme Court have established juvenile offenders aren’t the same as adults.
The neuroscience is clear. The pre-frontal cortex of juveniles’ brains is not fully developed. This area is responsible for “executive functions” like the ability to determine good and bad, future consequences, predict outcomes, and suppress impulses. It’s why we have age restrictions on alcohol, tobacco, voting, marrying and entering into contracts.
The science compelled the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole were unconstitutional for juveniles, even if they’d committed murder. Because of their less developed brains, the Court held juveniles were not as culpable as adults and had better prospects for rehabilitation.
Alaska does not have a “life without parole” for juveniles, per se. But juveniles can be sentenced to a practical equivalency by running significant sentences for multiple counts consecutively.
SB 114 in no way guarantees release. The Alaska Board of Parole is a strict gatekeeper. In 2020, it denied 77% of discretionary parole applications. The law would simply provide a “meaningful review” by the state Parole Board, which makes decisions based on a risk assessment tool, victim input, and whether paroling an inmate would diminish the severity of the offense. Parole can be made contingent on an offender meeting performance requirements while still in prison. Parole comes with conditions, supervision and revocation and reincarceration if the parolee violates conditions. Significantly, SB 114 would incentivize incarcerated juveniles to participate in every rehabilitation opportunity and prove themselves worthy of parole by achieving rehabilitation milestones.
Through their suffering, victims and their families have earned the right to seek “retribution.” Importantly, they have a voice to do so. The state has an Office of Victims Rights, victims may participate in sentencing and parole hearings, there is a strong Victims for Justice nonprofit. We must acknowledge parole hearings can cause victims to relive crimes.
However, Alaska’s constitution mandates that, in addition to victims’ rights, sentencing be based on protecting the public, community condemnation of the offender, restitution from the offender and the principle of reformation. It is a difficult but constitutionally required balancing.
Nationally, bipartisan “smart on crime” efforts began more than 15 years ago. In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed a prisoner rehabilitation initiative. It passed in 2008 with strong bipartisan support and allocated $362 million to help recently released prisoners reenter society. At the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, Republican Senator Rand Paul called for prison reform, as did Republican Governor Rick Perry. Laws like SB 114 have passed in West Virginia, Nevada and California.
The bipartisan support for reforming the failed “tough-on-crime” only makes sense given its crippling cost and failure in reducing recidivism. The Koch brothers, Newt Gingrich and Right on Crime are aligned with the ACLU and Democrats on criminal justice reform. The two sides may have different motivations, but they see the same solutions.
It’s time for the Alaska Legislature to join this bipartisan shift and get “smart on crime.” SB 114 is a modest step toward that. The Last Frontier should not be the last to wise up.
Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.
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