GUEST COMMENTARY: Senate Bill 54 necessary for public safety
Crime is on the rise. We’ve been hearing a lot from Alaskans about their cabins, cars, shops, and homes being broken into. People feel scared and that fear is warranted. The crime statistics confirm what we have been hearing in all of our Alaska communities.
As Alaska’s Attorney General and commissioner of Public Safety, public safety is our highest concern. We agree action is needed to protect Alaskans. Passing Senate Bill 54 during the special session is an important first step in this direction.
A number of factors contribute to our public safety problem. The foremost issues are the opioid epidemic and the fiscal crisis. Demands on our public safety resources have gone up while budgets to fight these problems have gone down.
We need to solve our fiscal crisis to ensure that the state has the resources available to address public safety. Ignoring our fiscal crisis will leave us with an inability to keep Alaskans safe.
We also need to ensure that our criminal laws establish appropriate sanctions to prevent and punish criminal acts. Enacted just over a year ago, Senate Bill 91 comprehensively reformed our criminal justice system by changing the classification and sentences for a number of crimes, adding pretrial and probation services, and focusing on rehabilitation of criminals and treatment for those with substance abuse problems.
SB 91 also increased the mandatory minimum sentences for murder in the first degree from 20 years to 30 years and murder in the second degree from 10 years to 15 years.
Based on evidence and positive experience of other states, SB 91 brought proven solutions to bear on the upward trend of crime and recidivism in Alaska. To be clear, the majority of changes brought by SB 91 are reforms that we support.
Prior to it, we saw the number of inmates growing faster than the facilities we had to house them, and two out of three inmates returned to jail within three years of release.
Our justice system clearly was in need of an overhaul. But criminal justice reform will need time – and resources – to bear fruit. For example, starting in January, the state will begin using a new risk assessment tool to assess individuals before they are released on bail.
The Department of Corrections will deploy 60 new officers to monitor defendants on bail. Additional substance abuse and mental health resources will soon come on line.
SB 91 is good policy. Yet, while SB 91 holds promise, as with any comprehensive overhaul, we knew adjustments would be needed. While the rise in violent crime preceded SB 91, the recent increase in larceny and vehicle thefts appears to correspond to certain changes made by the bill.
Feedback from courts, law enforcement, and prosecutors confirms that we need to adjust the tools available to judges to deter those crimes. Last session, SB 54 was introduced to correct some of these outstanding issues with SB 91, and these changes are intended to support the overall effectiveness of this criminal justice reform effort.
The governor added SB 54 to the special session this fall. We believe passing SB 54 is an essential step in addressing public safety. It gives courts more discretion to tailor appropriate sentences for repeat theft offenders and for first time Class C felonies. Under Alaska law, Class C felonies encompass a wide array of criminal conduct, including pointing a gun at someone, vehicle theft, causing a riot, and low level drug trafficking, to name a few.
It also returns violating a condition of release to a crime punishable by jail time. These are three issues that we’ve heard a lot about. We believe that these changes will help to deter offenders and provide tools to encourage offenders addicted to opioids and other illegal drugs to seek treatment.
This bill responds to the very concerns voiced by Alaskans, and representatives from both law enforcement and prosecutors testified in support of the bill before it passed the Senate. It now needs to pass the House, and be signed into law.
Passing SB 54 is one step, but it’s not the only step. Governor Walker also tasked us with putting together a comprehensive public safety action plan with steps the state can take to improve public safety around the state. This plan will soon be unveiled. We will continue to communicate and engage across state, federal, municipal, and tribal lines to make sure that we’re actively working to improve public safety at all levels.
Everyone deserves the right to feel safe in their neighborhoods and communities. To all Alaskans: please know that we are listening to your concerns. Public safety is our number one priority.
Jahna Lindemuth is the Attorney General of the State of Alaska. Walt Monegan is the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety.