Implementing a philosophy: As Juneau tackles crime bill, lots of questions left unanswered

The "Success Inside and Out" program at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The “Success Inside and Out” program at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Earlier this year, the state passed Senate Bill 91, a reform of Alaska’s criminal justice system. Its proponents hope it will reduce recidivism and the likelihood of repeat offenders.

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But as the bill’s effects trickle down to local governments, Juneau city officials are realizing there are a lot of questions left unanswered.

Juneau City Attorney Amy Mead briefed about a dozen city officials Wednesday afternoon on the crime bill, SB91.

“The commission recommended that there be a reduction in the length of stay and a cap of overall incarceration time for people who were found to be violating their conditions of release,” Mead said. “The commission found that the in-prison sex offender treatment programs were very effective and they wanted to incentivize that.”

“The time people had spent on probation and parole had dramatically increased since 2015. The commission recommended reducing the maximum length for probation terms.”

Mead summarized the more than 20 recommendations listed in a December 2015 report from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. Many of the commission’s recommendations were implemented in SB 91.

“That is the laundry list of efforts that I’m making, trying to figure out how to move forward. Do you have any questions?” she said.

Juneau Assembly members had a lot, ranging from funding to prosecutions.

“We’re tasked with finding creative alternative sentencing options and I, off the top of my head, do not know what those things look like,” Mead said. “So we’re trying to do some research and trying to figure out what other communities have gone through this (and) what they have used.”

After the meeting, Mayor Ken Koelsch said it’s clear that there’s more work ahead.

“My reaction to that is that there are more dark areas than light areas, so there’s more things we don’t know than we know,” Koelsch said. “So it’s going to be trial-by-error situation in trying to figure out exactly what this bill means and what it means for the city.”

Koelsch said he found the consequence of failing to fulfill community service requirements confusing.

Previously, if someone was ordered to do community service for a crime instead of jail, and refused to do the service they would go to jail.

Under SB91, Mead says, that’s no longer the case. The court can still fine them.

But Koelsch says it’s unclear what will happen if the offender can’t or refuses to pay the fine.

Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson also attended the meeting. He says some of his officers are frustrated and confused with some of aspects of the bill.

“They’re getting a lot of calls right now,” Johnson said. “People found out you can’t be put in jail for a property crime under $250.”

“So we’ve gotten a lot more calls than we did before so that seems to be at least a short term response. So they’re feeling the pinch of it.”

If the bill is effective, it might also lessen the likelihood of repeat offenders. But in Juneau, there are a lot seasoned ones.

“Repeat, repeat, repeat,” Johnson said. “A lot of the people that we arrest, they’ve been arrested many times.”

“So if the state can figure out a way to keep them from offending again, don’t miss understand me, I think that’s a great idea.”

He says he respects the intent of the bill but things still need clarification.

“A lot of it is, this was a sweeping change to the criminal justice program, that happened pretty quick—and there is still a lot of unknown,” Johnson said.

Misdemeanors that used to land people in jail don’t under SB91, Mead says. Which means the city may be able to reduce what it pays the state to cover the jailing costs. It’s been about $400,000 a year since 2002.

Halfway through the meeting, Assembly member Jamie Bursell asked Mead a question that seemed to be on a lot of people’s minds.

“Regarding treatment options, with a lack of community resource centers (in Juneau), what will we do in the interim?” Bursell said.

“That is a fabulous question and I don’t know how to answer that,” Mead answered after a long pause.

But, Mead says, she knows other cities have gone through this before, and succeeded.