Justice reinvestment needed for offenders, victims

  • By Kara Nelson
  • Monday, April 11, 2016 4:02pm
  • Opinion

I am a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence. I am also an offender with two felony drug convictions. These two things are related. I support the Alaska Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Senate Bill 91 and House Bill 205, because our justice system is failing my peers who are victims, and also failing my peers who are offenders. We can do better, and this reform package is the first big step in that direction.

Like me, many Alaskans who land in our prisons have trauma in their pasts.

These traumas may be from violence, neglect, loss, or chaos in our homes and elsewhere. For many of us, they have raised our everyday stress levels to the point where we’re almost always in fight or flight mode. We may have very short triggers or crushing depression. Left untreated, we cope with these traumas in our lives with alcohol, drugs, and sometimes more violence.

This is not an excuse for causing harm to others, ourselves, and our communities. It’s a call to action.

Alaska spends hundreds of millions of dollars on prison beds each year, but next to nothing on treatment and services for offenders and victims.

Lawmakers should not be surprised that there is such substantial overlap between those of us who are victims and those of us who are offenders. Nor should they be surprised that so many of us who leave prison (two out of three) return within a few years.

Long-term success and stability in the community requires more than just harsh punishments. It requires housing, employment, and support for recovery. It requires shelters, safety planning, and help with child care.

These services are vital, but drastically underfunded.

That’s why I urge our Legislature to enact the Justice Reinvestment legislation, SB 91 and HB 205. This legislation will save hundreds of millions of dollars that the state would otherwise spend locking up low level offenders and detaining low-risk defendants pretrial who can’t afford to pay small amounts of bail. It then reinvests much of those savings into pretrial supervision, substance abuse treatment, violence prevention programs, reentry supports, and victims’ services. It also helps cut through barriers to reentry like lifetime bans on drivers’ licenses.

Criminal justice reforms are not just pro-offender or pro-victim. That’s a false dichotomy. This rethinking of how we spend money will get much better outcomes for offenders and for victims, meaning improved public safety and also improved personal safety. We are your neighbors and family members. We want to contribute to our communities. We deserve a system that helps us on that journey.

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from power and resources.” — Glenn E. Martin, Founder & President of JustLeadershipUSA.

Kara Nelson, a lifelong Alaskan resident, is the Director of Haven House Juneau, a transitional home for women returning to their community from incarceration. She is a woman in long term recovery, a community leader, and person who was formerly incarcerated.

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