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Texas experience makes it clear: Alaska should give SB 91 time to work

  • Author: Jerry Madden
    | Opinion
    , Marc Levin
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 10, 2017
  • Published October 10, 2017

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, speaks on the Senate floor Jan. 18, 2017. Coghill was the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 91, criminal justice reform that is up for revision in the special session later in October.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Ten years ago, our home state of Texas was plagued by unsettling crime levels and a skyrocketing prison population. Projections suggested the next decade would bring more of the same, plus a whopping $3 billion in new taxpayer costs.

Fortunately, Texas decided enough was enough. Instead of building more prisons and enduring the same disappointing results, we took a different path, investing in drug courts and other alternatives proven to reduce reoffending. Since then, we've closed eight prisons, our recidivism rate has plummeted and crime has dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s.

Inspired by the Texas experience, other states are adopting criminal justice reforms, and we were proud to see Alaska join the list with last year's passage of Senate Bill 91. Approved by large, bipartisan majorities in both legislative houses, SB 91 is a carefully crafted law that puts the brakes on expensive prison growth and invests in strategies that reduce recidivism.

SB 91 is expected to avert tens of millions of dollars in prison growth spending. A portion of these savings, $100 million, will be reinvested into needed treatment access across the state and evidence-based violence prevention programming.

As conservatives, we understand why some Alaskans may question whether criminal justice "reform" really means softer sanctions for lawbreakers. We also understand why crime increases reported for 2016 have sparked some criticism that SB 91 isn't working as planned.

But as straight-shooting veterans of the reform process, we'd like to shine some truth on both of those claims. Let's start with crime.

Any uptick in crime is cause for concern and should be addressed, but let's get our facts straight. SB 91 was signed in July 2016 — halfway through the crime reporting period — and major portions of it won't take effect until January 2018. It's also true that violent crime has been trending upward in Alaska for three decades, property crime started increasing well prior to SB 91 passage, and experts see no link to new policies enacted under the law.

As for broader concerns about the integrity of Alaska's reform effort, we've been on the main stage showing how similar initiatives in Texas can yield positive results. Is reform easy? No. Do dramatic changes materialize overnight? Rarely.

Reform is a slow and painstaking process, especially in the criminal justice arena. Achieving lasting success requires patience, vigilance and oversight to ensure the state stays on track.

Fortunately, SB 91 lays out a comprehensive blueprint that requires the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission to monitor progress. If reform efforts don't produce the outcomes we all expect, the Legislature will know and can adjust as needed.

This formula worked in Texas, but that doesn't mean we didn't go through the same sort of anxiety Alaska is experiencing now. Early on, there was plenty of fretting and second guessing, especially because Texas was the first state to venture down this road. But we stayed focused and today we've got proof that reform works.

And Alaska is showing similar positive reform progress, already with this short amount of time, they've invested $30 million from anticipated savings  and this will help to bolster law enforcement, treatment and benefit public safety.

Given the uncertainty rippling through Alaska, it's important to remember the meticulous process that produced SB 91. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission spent six months on a rigorous review of the correctional system and held five public hearings that included stakeholders and community members in the state's most remote reaches. Then came more than 50 legislative hearings.

In short, this wasn't some rushed, non-deliberate process. Instead, SB 91 was based on research, experience from states like Texas and data showing that what Alaska had been doing — relying heavily on prison to penalize people convicted of nonviolent crimes — wasn't working. Recidivism rates were alarmingly high and projections suggested the state would face another $169 million in prison costs by 2024.

Given that gloomy backdrop, Alaska's leaders did the right thing in evolving beyond the old "lock 'em all up" mindset and embracing the fact-based approach embodied in SB 91. As legislators, we know not every bill works perfectly, and making smart changes is part of the process. We applaud them for that, and we urge them to stand firm in retaining the good parts of a substantive reform package and resist efforts to roll back substantial reforms. All Alaskans deserve this success — let's make sure not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Jerry Madden is former Republican chairman of the Corrections Committee of the Texas House of Representatives, and has testified before the Alaska Legislature about criminal justice reform. Marc Levin is policy director of Right on Crime, a conservative group focused on criminal justice.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com. 

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