With the state of Alaska emerging from the financial doldrums brought by low oil prices, one area of the budget that may soon see more spending is law enforcement. That was the message residents had for Senator Peter Micciche at a town hall meeting in Kenai Monday night.
Senate Bill 91 was front and center at Monday evening’s meeting, and there was no shortage of opinions about the crime reform bill’s perceived inadequacies. Passed two years ago as reform that would cut prison populations and, by extension, cut costs, few at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center felt the bill had done much to boost public safety. Senator Peter Micciche owns his vote for SB 91, but recognizes that it came during a time many have called a perfect storm for crime.
“I voted for the bill, along with almost everyone in the legislature, as you know. It became quite apparent soon afterward that we had some things to correct. We missed the mark in several areas.”
Lawmakers and law enforcement officials have pointed to several overlapping factors that made SB 91 less effective than was hoped. The bill loosened penalties for some lower level crimes and kept some suspects out of prison during their pre-trial periods, all in an attempt to lower prison populations and save money. But it came at a time when low level crime, largely associated with opioid and other drug addiction, was on the rise. And at the local level, especially in rural areas, citizens have made the connection between repeat offenders and more lenient penalties.
The director of the state department of law’s criminal division, John Skidmore, oversees the prosecutors working on the state’s behalf. He says SB 91, in addition to state budget cuts, changed the calculus of what and what kinds of cases to bring before the court. Here on the Kenai Peninsula, since 2014, referrals for felony cases have actually gone down.
“I know a lot of you are thinking to yourselves, how in the world are they getting fewer referrals when it feels like there’s so much crime all around us," Skidmore asked, while going over state and local crime statisitics.
Felony assaults, property offenses, robberies are all up. What’s down are charges for felony drug crimes. A main point of SB 91 was to try and get drug offenders help with rehab rather than time behind bars. In some cases, it gave offenders a choice by doing things like lowering bail amounts for certain charges, allowing them the opportunity to get into recovery programs. But that’s had mixed results. Recidivism is still high in Alaska. Two out of every three prisoners who are released will commit another crime. But just as locking them up and throwing away the key won’t stop all that crime, neither will doing away completely with SB 91, Skidmore says. You don’t want to totally remove the incentives for making better choices, like reasonable bail amounts for first time offenders. If you do,
“You’re back to a system that says we’re going to decide whether or not you should sit in jail based on how much money you have. That just doesn’t seem very fair. I might go so far as to say it doesn’t seem very American. So...there are some adjustments that need to be made. But I think an outright repeal throws out the baby with the bathwater.”
A quick show of hands toward the end of the meeting showed support for more funding for state prosecutors, state troopers and state prisons. Whether more opportunities for rehabilitation and education will make the cut will be left to whoever occupies the legislature after election season.