Opinions

OPINION: Give us meaningful public safety investments, not more prison beds

Alaska’s criminal legal system is holistically failing. I’ve arrived at this unfortunate conclusion after spending nearly 15 years healing from sexual violence, and the past decade observing the system in action through my work. Racism, the binary concept of good and bad, poor policy, and the idea that we will achieve different results by trying the same tired tactics has kept Alaskans from living in safer communities for too long.

It’s time to make different choices.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s State of the State address in January relied on the same tough-on-crime rhetoric that politicians before him have embraced to solicit votes. He boasted that Alaskans are safer because he helped dismantle smart justice policies.

We’ve heard this narrative before from him. Three years ago, he declared “war on criminals” as if we live in Gotham City.

Dunleavy built a runway for this speech in December in his proposed budget and in components of his “People First Initiative.” His budget suggests spending more taxpayer dollars on police, prosecutors and prisons, and would make $3.87 million in cuts on programs providing rehabilitation for incarcerated people. He’s selling the initiative as a way to address public safety issues that have long plagued Alaska — including the state’s unconscionably high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Together, this indicates Dunleavy will introduce an omnibus crime bill next.

Finding meaningful solutions to these problems is sorely needed. Too many lives have been stolen. Too much trauma has been inflicted. Harm continues to echo through lifetimes and generations, despite all that Alaska has tried and failed to halt the cycle.

But Dunleavy’s approach to double down will fail too, because more crimes on state books, longer sentences, and greater reliance on prosecutors, police and prisons has never made us safer.

These ideas do not reduce or prevent crime — they displace and multiply it. By the time law enforcement intervenes, harm has already occurred. And if putting people in prison were the answer, nearly every governor before him would have been successful in reducing and preventing these harms.

The system never helped me. It only opened my eyes.

I was a teenager when I was raped at a party in Anchorage. Like about 80% of survivors, I didn’t report it. I knew then, like I know now, I wasn’t a perfect victim. I am reminded of the troubling reality of this sentiment every time I work with Bun Hardy, who was brave enough to speak up but ignored by police in Nome because she had been drinking and because she is an Indigenous woman. I can’t say whether my story would have gone like Bun’s, but I can say that statistically speaking, my opportunity for justice would have been greater — not because I am more worthy, but because I am white. The criminal legal system has always had more sympathy for white women than those with Black and brown skin.

I suffered with the pain of my experience for years until it almost killed me. In the process of healing, a journey I’m still on, I grappled with the consequences of my failure to speak. I wondered if he assaulted anyone else. The idea that he could have made me feel complicit.

Then I worked for the Department of Corrections, or DOC.

What I learned about Alaska’s prison system would help me understand my own experiences, help me heal, and inspire me to work to find meaningful solutions to the terrible issues that result in the suffering of countless Alaskans.

I witnessed a system eager to quench the state’s thirst for vengeance but disinterested in investments that create healing and prevent harm.

Walking through the hallways of Alaska’s prisons, I realized that the teenage boy who assaulted me probably would not have been made safer by being confined there for years.

I saw harm in prisons spread between individuals, then out to families and communities and back again. Babies meeting their fathers through Plexiglas. The legacy of white boarding schools stripping language and culture from Indigenous people. I watched parents make desperate choices to provide basic needs for family. I heard guards tell people who were finally going home that they’d be back soon. I saw the pictures of Nancy Analok dead in her cell because she choked on a sandwich. No one noticed. I watched the video over and over again of officers killing Larry Kobuk. I saw the tears falling from the faces of people who’d found their friends hung in their cells. I saw sober people develop drug addictions. I saw people waiting and waiting to get into programs that didn’t have room for them — programs essential to public safety, like sex offender treatment.

None of it makes me feel safer, just nauseous.

So, when I think of the teenage boy who assaulted me, I know I deserved accountability, but prison wouldn’t have achieved that for me. Perpetuating harm does not help me.

Alaska’s prisons are not rehabilitative. Rehabilitation requires accountability, which you cannot force, and humanity, which the prison system strips away in the name of punishment.

Incarcerated people in Alaska have a constitutional right to rehabilitation. The punishment is the loss of freedom. Corrections is expected to create opportunities to correct behavior. While DOC argues that lack of programming is a resource issue, it’s easy to have a grim perspective of what its priorities are when you see a $10,000 hiring bonus for correctional officers, but no real plan for hiring more counselors, educators, therapists.

If Alaska’s leaders want to do more than solicit votes by talking about being tough on crime, they would make greater investments in mental health care, substance misuse and sex offender treatments, violence prevention programming, affordable housing, employment services, and education for all children — not just those living in mostly white, urban neighborhoods. They’ll lift the power of cultural and spiritual healing. They’ll address root causes of harm — misogyny, white supremacy, ableism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, poverty and trauma.

We must do things differently if we are truly invested in improving public safety, and creating a state where people do not have to live in fear.

That isn’t to say that we stop seeking accountability from those who create harm, but it means we seek solutions that do more than punish an individual, and instead address the greater social gaps that have allowed too many people — like me — to suffer the consequences.

All, I am tired of listening to the same static noise. I want to be safe, so I want change.

Megan Edge is an abolitionist, lifelong Alaskan, and communications director at the ACLU of Alaska.

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