Voices of Alaska: How to work smarter to prevent, address crime in Alaska

  • By Commissioner Gary Folger and Lt. Kris Sell
  • Tuesday, February 16, 2016 5:33pm
  • Opinion

As law enforcement officials, we earn public confidence not just by being professional, but by evolving and working smarter. That’s why we are encouraged by the smart justice reforms laid out in Senate Bill 91. By advancing evidence-based reforms to the state’s systems for bail, sentencing, and community supervision, Senate Bill 91 aligns our justice system with the best knowledge in the field on what works to prevent crimes and change criminal offending behavior.

For the past year, we have proudly served on the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, an interbranch task force of criminal justice practitioners and policymakers created to examine our corrections system and recommend changes to spend state dollars more efficiently and better protect public safety. We worked with a broad cross-section of criminal justice professionals and stakeholders to analyze the state’s data, identify problem areas, and look to the best research in the field on what practices work to prevent re-offending. What we saw in the data were many of the same trends we in the law enforcement community see every day: a failure to effectively address mental health issues and curb addiction and addiction-fueled crime, and a revolving prison door.

We saw that the vast majority of people arrested and brought to jail come in for nonviolent misdemeanors — the lowest level offenses. If they can’t pay bail, they sit in jail for weeks or months before going to trial. They often stay in prison just long enough to lose their jobs, lose their ability to pay rent, and lose custody of their kids, disrupting the prosocial things in their lives. Meanwhile, they’re housed with more serious criminals in jail who teach them all the wrong survival skills.

Alaska has a shockingly high recidivism rate: two out of three offenders released from Alaska’s prisons return within three years. Individuals cycle into prison on low-level offenses, come out worse than they went in, and get picked up again on the same or more serious charges. The cycling of these low-level offenders in and out of our prisons has driven up the prison population and driven up costs, taking up funds that could be focused on prevention, treatment, and community supervision. We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on prisons, and not seeing a good public safety return on that spending.

Working with the Commission, we identified specific law changes that the Legislature should adopt this session to strengthen our criminal justice system, reduce crime and recidivism, and stop wasting state dollars on practices that don’t work. We plan to continue to engage public safety officials and private citizens across Alaska, and offer support to Senator Coghill in his efforts to implement reform, while continuing to ensure our communities remain safe. These changes would reform our bail system to safely release more nonviolent pretrial defendants while they wait for their trials. They would bring our criminal sentences in line with other states and divert low-level nonviolent offenders away from prison altogether and into more effective alternatives. They would also strengthen community supervision by focusing resources on high-risk offenders, incorporating treatment and programming to address addiction and antisocial thinking, using sanctions and incentives more effectively, and providing reentry supports for offenders coming out of prison.

This package of reforms, which Senator John Coghill has incorporated into Senate Bill 91, will save the state hundreds of millions of dollars and result in better outcomes and fewer crime victims.

It’s time for our justice system to work smarter. We’ve shown the Legislature how to get there, and urge them to support this package of reforms.

Gary Folger is the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety. Kris Sell is a Lieutenant at the Juneau Police Department.

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