In their first act of the special session Thursday, legislators rolled out a far-reaching compromise that will reverse many aspects of the much-derided Senate Bill 91 criminal justice reforms. It’s another chapter in Alaska’s troubled recent history of crime legislation, and one that is effectively a $50 million-per-year bet that a tough-on-crime approach will help stem unacceptably high levels of crime against people and property. We should all hope that bet pays off.
Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy won a solid victory in 2018 after a campaign that had three major promises: A balanced budget, a PFD funded via the statutory formula and a heightened focus on public safety. The prospect for the governor’s delivery on the first two promises remains an open question. But the return to a criminal justice approach that more closely resembles the time before SB 91′s passage must be counted as a victory for Gov. Dunleavy’s agenda, as well as for the many members of the Legislature who ran on a platform of retooling SB 91 or replacing it altogether. The version of crime legislation House Bill 49 that emerged in a conference committee Thursday increased sentencing ranges for a broad array of offenses and made a key pretrial risk assessment component of SB 91 an optional consideration for judges. The changes are expected to cost roughly an additional $100 million over the next two years, largely because of increases in the state’s prison population that could require the reopening of the Palmer Correctional Center.
That’s not to say spending more money on criminal justice is a bad idea. Even given Alaska’s current budget challenges, devoting greater resources to combating the state’s crime problem is necessary, and Gov. Dunleavy and the Legislature are right to have made it a primary area of focus. One recent example of a sorely needed bill on the topic was House Bill 14, which legislators passed in the final days of the regular session. It closed the infamous “Schneider loophole,” the gap in Alaska’s sexual assault laws that let a man who perpetrated a heinous act go free after minimal time spent behind bars. That issue was the highest profile example of flaws in Alaska’s laws relating to domestic violence and sexual assault, and correcting it this year was necessary.
On the greater issue of replacing SB 91, time will tell if legislators have taken the correct approach. The push for rehabilitation-focused criminal justice reform was born out of high costs for incarceration and high recidivism rates — criminals re-offending at rates among the worst in the nation. Now that Alaska is returning to a tough-on-crime approach, legislators and Alaskans should pay close attention to the recidivism rate to make sure we’re not simply warehousing prisoners only to see them back in jail just as quickly as before. Ultimately, our goal should be to have fewer people in jail, not more.
Legislators and Gov. Dunleavy prioritized public safety legislation this year, and that effort has borne fruit with HB 49. Now they should wait and see if their tinkering with Alaska’s crime laws moves the needle in the right direction, reducing rates at which people offend and re-offend. As was the case with SB 91 and other fixes, issues with the legislation may become apparent. But Alaskans shouldn’t be too hasty in declaring the changes a success or failure — the effects of such sweeping changes to the law take time to become clear, and too-frequent tweaks will muddy the waters. It’s time for a deep breath, followed by a sober assessment of what’s working in Alaska’s criminal justice system and what isn’t.