Crime increased in Alaska in 2017; most in central Kenai low-level or property offenses

The upswing in crime across Alaska continued in 2017, with the increase mostly in low-level and property crimes on the Kenai.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety’s 2017 edition of the Uniform Crime Report — which collects and tracks data year over year on a certain set of crimes from law enforcement agencies statewide — reports that overall crime of the types tracked increased 6 percent in the state from 2016–2017. Violent crime offenses — which include assault, robbery, rape, murder, non-negligent manslaughter, and aggravated assault — increased 6 percent and property crime offenses — including burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson — increased 5 percent, according to the report.

Over the last five years, those violent crime offenses have increased 35 percent and property crime offenses have increased 23 percent, according to the report. However, there are more than four times as many property crimes of those types than violent crimes, with 6,320 violent crimes to 26,225 property crimes, according to the report.

On the central Kenai Peninsula, the increase is largely in crimes like theft and trespassing rather than violent crimes. For the Soldotna Police Department, that has taken the form of burglaries, thefts and vehicle thefts, which are up 166 percent, 19.3 percent and 200 percent respectively since 2012, said Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik in an email.

The crime increase has looked much the same for the Kenai Police Department, with an uptick in arrests for charges like vehicle theft, vandalism and larceny. At a recent town hall meeting on crime, Kenai Police Chief Dave Ross said the department’s total arrests increased about 20 percent in the last year over the previous year.

“What’s rising rapidly in the last few years has been low-level crime down here (on the Kenai),” Ross said. “ It’s theft, it’s burglary, it’s vehicle theft, shoplifting, small-scale theft is very high, trespassing and reports of trespassing.”

Not all the crimes they arrest people for are being counted in the report’s overall statistics calculated into the 5-6 percent increase figure. The Uniform Crime Report only tracks the specific crimes included in the statistics, and Kenai has seen an uptick in other crimes not included, like arrests for driving under the influence or disorderly conduct, Ross said.

The statistics track with what police departments and prosecutors have been seeing, said Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth in a statement.

“The 2017 UCR looks back at information a year ago or more and doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know,” Lindemuth said. “But it does confirm the concerns we voiced last year. The trends we were seeing last year is why we have the Public Safety Action Plan and why we have already taken many concrete steps to implement that plan. Our crime problem will not be solved overnight but we are making progress.”

In response to the increase in crime, the Department of Law worked to increase public safety funding in the fiscal year 2018 to hire more prosecutors an criminal investigators and for substance abuse treatment. A major factor in the crime increase has been tracked to the opioid crisis gripping the nation. Gov. Bill Walker introduced a Public Safety Action Plan in October 2017 with updates in May 2018, focusing on a variety of efforts to control the movement of drugs in the state and to offer more substance abuse treatment.

While the crime rate has been increasing, the incarcerated population in the state has been falling. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of people in the Alaska correctional system fell from 5,034 to 4,237, according to the Alaska Department of Corrections’ 2017 Offender Profile report. At Kenai’s Wildwood Correctional Complex, though, that number has stayed relatively stable for that time, falling from 317 in 2015 to 275 in 2016 but rising to 322 in 2017, according to the Alaska Department of Corrections.

One reason for the statewide decline is the implementation of Senate Bill 91, an omnibus crime reform bill the Legislature passed in 2016. The bill reduced penalties for some categories of crimes, specifically aimed at reducing the prison population. The reforms made in the bill have since come under fire for going too far and allowing too many people to go free after committing lower level crimes like vehicle theft. The Legislature is still debating further changes to the criminal justice laws.

The Kenai Police Department’s officers have been doing what they can strategically to help control crime, Ross said. There’s also been an increased interest in neighborhood watches, with a number of the areas in Kenai organizing and working with the police or installing game cameras to track crime in the area.

“There’s probably more neighborhoods organized here than there ever have been,” Ross said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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