Senate Bill 91 relies on reinvestment to reduce crime

Sen. John Coghill, the primary sponsor for SB 91, speaks during a Senate Majority press conference, Jan. 20, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)
Sen. John Coghill, the primary sponsor for SB 91, speaks during a Senate Majority press conference, Jan. 20, 2015. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Senate Bill 91, the omnibus crime bill, is working its way through the Senate Finance Committee. In its current form, it would save the state about $150 million over the next five years, but about $100 million of that would be reinvested into programs aimed at making the community safer.

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The bill is primarily based on recommendations from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. When Lt. Kris Sell with the Juneau Police Department was appointed to that commission in 2014, she was focused on one thing — being tough on crime.

“Cause it’s an awesome message,” she said. “It feels great to be tough on crime. Nobody likes crime.”

Sell said during her 18 years on the force she would go to crime scenes where the suspects were repeat offenders and think that if only the perpetrator had been kept in prison longer, the crime wouldn’t have happened. So she didn’t want to do things that seemed like they would help criminals, but she also knew that the recidivism rate in Alaska was more than 60 percent.

“We are a victim-making factory in this state. We just keep unleashing the same criminals ready to commit crimes against our citizenry.”

After joining the commission and reviewing national data, Sell said she changed her tune. She realized being “tough on crime” with harsher penalties wasn’t really a deterrent for offenders. “They’re not sitting down and doing a cost benefit analysis before they commit a crime,” often because they are on substances.

Sell said ultimately, the criminal justice system needs to get to the root of the issues that lead people to commit crimes by treating things like substance abuse and mental illness.

The bill’s main sponsor, Senator John Coghill of Fairbanks, said SB 91 offers multiple tools to do just that, and one starts before a person is even convicted. The basic idea is this: when someone is arrested, they take a risk assessment. Low-risk offenders who have good potential for rehabilitation are given alternatives to incarceration time. Those include monitoring to make sure they’re held accountable for their actions. This, combined with reductions in sentence and probation time for some types of offenders as well as other justice system reforms, will save the state about $100 to $150 million over the next 5 years.

About two-thirds of those savings will then be reinvested into programs like substance abuse and sex offender treatment, making them available to people already in prisons and halfway houses. SB 91 includes incentives to entice people to participate.

“The programs are going to be helpful for people to change their behavior,” Coghill said. “Those who won’t change their behavior–jail is going to have to be their lot. Those that will change and be productive, that’s a better society and that’s what we’re aiming at.”

Money will also go toward community-based treatment programs, domestic violence prevention, and victims’ services. The bill calls for beefing up supervision programs for people who are released from prison and are at the highest risk for re-offending. The ideas are based on programs instituted by other states that have reduced both crime and recidivism.

Brenda Stanfill is the Executive Director of the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, a victim’s advocacy group, and a member of the Justice Commission. She said she knows the changes, like reduced sentences and probation times, seem frightening at first for crime victims.

“We really thought that we could criminalize our way out of a social issue. And I think what we have to recognize is that people are being victimized because we have some extensive social issues that we have to address that our current prisons are not. They don’t have programming in prison. They’re not getting the services they need, and we’re not making a difference when they go back out.”

From her perspective, she said it doesn’t help victims to have offenders sitting around all day playing cards and reading. If their sentences are shorter but they’re given the tools to rehabilitate, then it will make the community safer.

For both Stanfill and Lt. Sell, the reinvestment portion of the bill is one of the keys to making it effective.

“Unless you do that reinvestment, don’t pass this bill,” Sell said. “Because if you pass only the part of the bill that saves money and don’t do the reinvestment, all you’re going to do is make our current revolving door spin faster.”

The 107-page-long bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee, which will take public testimony on Friday.