In December 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed a sweeping criminal justice overhaul that had rare bipartisan support. A similarly rare feat: It was praised by the editorial boards of both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
The First Step Act incentivized federal prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce recidivism by making them eligible to earn 10 to 15 days of credit toward an earlier release for every 30 days spent in the programs. Programming ranged from anger management and drug treatment to educational, work and social-skills classes. The earned earlier-release dates would save millions in prison costs.
At the time, Alaska’s Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan didn’t support the legislation. They were gun shy of their constituents after rising voter complaints about Senate Bill 91, which passed in Alaska in 2016 and reduced sentences for some nonviolent crimes. Some voters thought the sentence reductions led to an increase in property crimes -- especially vehicle thefts and burglaries. When SB 91 was repealed in 2019, Sen. Shelley Hughes said, “A sense of safety and security trumps every other need Alaskans have.” That may be, but the repeal of SB 91 offered an expensive and false sense of safety and security.
The increase in car thefts and burglaries, largely in Anchorage, coincided with the opioid crisis and began before SB 91. I understand the appeal of harsh sentences to a sense of public safety. As a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska in the 1980s and 1990s, I was part of the “tough on crime” philosophy of that era. When I got a guilty defendant convicted and sent to jail, I moved on to the next case. But the closing of prison doors wasn’t the end of the story for the defendant or the community. At some point, nearly all inmates come back into the community.
Prison is expensive. Alaska spends an average of $52,633 to incarcerate someone for a year. That’s well over three times what it spends per school pupil each year. And it’s a staggering amount considering U.S. Census data showed Alaska’s per capita income in 2019 was $36,787 and median household income was $77,640. Last year, the Anchorage Daily News reported that Alaska would spend more on its prisons – $357 million – than its university system – $257 million – and the gap was widening.
Alaska’s spending on incarceration is the eighth-highest in the nation. Worse than that ranking is our return on the money. Our recidivism rate, defined as returning to custody within three years of release, is the highest in the country at 66.41%. Two-thirds of those individuals are reincarcerated within six months of being released.
Evidence-based research shows the length of a prison sentence doesn’t reduce crime. Instead, crime is more the result of a person’s environment and lack of opportunity. The key to preventing recidivism is rehabilitating inmates before they leave prison with programs that provide the means and the opportunity for them to earn for themselves and their families.
The answer to an opioid-crisis-driven increase in property crime isn’t longer, expensive prison sentences. It’s time for Alaska’s Legislature to look to evidence-based reform for reducing both prison costs and recidivism rates -- like the First Step Act. What we’re doing now isn’t working -- except to give us the nation’s worst, and eighth-most expensive, recidivism rate.
Val Van Brocklin is a former Alaska state and federal prosecutor, as well as a national trainer and writer on criminal justice topics.
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