We were glad to hear on Friday that Senate Bill 54 — a proposed fix to some of the flaws in the comprehensive criminal justice reform bill passed into law last year, Senate Bill 91 — may be one step closer toward becoming law.
SB 54 is a good compromise between those who want to repeal SB 91 entirely and those who want to do nothing but wait until SB 91 is fully implemented.
There is no question that Alaska desperately needs criminal justice reform. The state’s prison population has ballooned 27 percent in the past decade, much faster than the population rate. Recidivism rates are out of control, with two out of every three inmates returning to jail within three years of release.
Without SB 91 or SB 54, the state would be forced to open and operate a new state prison (which would not be cheap) or would be forced to send inmates out of state (again, not cheap). At the same time, it would ignore the problems behind the state and national opioid crisis.
The intent behind SB 91 is a fine one: Lock up violent criminals and predators who pose a risk to the community for a substantial amount of time; that doesn’t change. But for those who land in prison repeatedly for issues that may be treatable or manageable, such as drug addiction or mental health issues, treat the underlying issues instead of throwing the book at them. Not locking up those non-violent offenders, and instead investing in crime-reduction programs, would save the state tens of millions of dollars per year, the state forecasts.
It’s much too early to give up on SB 91, especially when it’s not even fully implemented or even given a year to succeed.
At the same time, it’s clear that things cannot continue as they are. Those in the throes of substance abuse are being arrested for crimes (theft, drug possession, etc.), given a slap on the wrist and then released again into society without being given the proper resources or tools to treat their addictions and other issues.
Imagine how frustrating that must be to a local shop owner, who is stolen from time and time again, by the same person. Imagine how frustrating that must be to a police officer, who arrests the same drug addict one day, only to have him or her be released without treatment, and to arrest him the next day. At some point, patience and compassion runs out, even for the best of us.
SB 54 aims to resolve some of those real issues with the current law, as well as closing other loopholes. It gives judges more discretion in sentencing first time class C felony offenders and class A misdemeanors; it also makes theft in the fourth degree (up to $250 in theft) a jailable offense. Hopefully that will ease some of the high frustration levels of law enforcement, prosecutors, victim advocates and victims of crimes.
The state of Alaska has a drug and alcohol problem, and it’s driving crime rates and prison populations up for the entire state. We can pay to put people in prison, or we can pay to treat them. With Senate Bill 54, we know the right answer.
— Juneau Empire,