Rolling back criminal justice reform would cost Alaska millions

Senate Bill 91, one of the biggest changes to Alaska’s criminal justice system in decades, was touted as using an evidence-based approach to emphasize treatment and diversion instead of prison.

The core idea behind the bill was that prison terms for lesser offenses trap people in a cycle. If they go to jail, they can’t keep a job. If they can’t keep a job, they’re more likely to turn to crime to survive.

“You put them in jail, they’re more likely to commit a crime in the future,” said John Skidmore, head of the criminal division of the Alaska Department of Law.

Now, lawmakers are discarding that system before it has even been fully implemented.

The Alaska Senate Finance Committee is considering Senate Bills 54 and 55, which would increase prison terms for some of the crimes that SB 91 addressed.

That approach will cost more money and won’t reduce crime, experts warned the committee on Tuesday.

“You’ll both see a negative impact on the budget … but also reduced effectiveness in terms of reducing recidivism,” said Quinlan Steiner, the state’s public defender and a member of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.

Corrections commissioner Dean Williams said Tuesday that if lawmakers roll back last year’s criminal justice reform bill, the state will spend millions of dollars per year and may be forced to reopen a prison it closed.

“My budget has been set with the expectation that there is going to be future contraction of the prison population,” Williams said. “If we make these changes and we have enhancements in some of these sentences, I’m looking for some dollars to come back into the system to keep the system a viable system and keep it a safe prison system.”

Asked whether the Department of Corrections might be forced to reopen the recently closed Palmer Correctional Center, Williams said, “Yeah, it’s possible.”

Financial notes presented to the committee indicate the rollback could cost the state more than $4.3 million per year. That’s almost 20 percent of the savings forecast when Senate Bill 91 passed the Legislature last year.

The Criminal Justice Commission spent years in research and discussion before making 21 unanimous recommendations to the Legislature in 2015. Those recommendations were the heart of SB 91. SB 91 also promised to save $21.1 million per year and millions more in deferred costs.

Earlier this year, a divided commission made recommendations to modify the bill. Lawmakers have incorporated some of those changes into SB 54 and SB 55, but they’ve gone beyond those recommendations on a handful of controversial items.

The biggest of those is a change to sentencing for Class C felonies, the least-severe felony category. Class C felonies represent 40 percent of all people jailed in Alaska.

SB 91 imposed a suspended jail sentence for people convicted of a Class C felony for the first time. This year, the commission recommended changing that to an active jail sentence of 0-90 days, chosen by the judge. Lawmakers instead put an active sentencing range of 0-365 days into SB 54.

“A year of jail amounts to what is basically a rollback of the original policy,” Steiner said, “and what you’re going to see from this is an increase in felony convictions and jail time without any associated increase in rehabilitation, necessarily.”

Lawmakers are being driven by an outcry from their constituents, who — according to the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center — have seen a surge in violent crime since 2014.

“Citizens are pretty upset,” said Walt Monegan, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. “What’s happening now … does not appear to work.”

Testifying during a public comment period Tuesday, Ron Flint of Nugget Alaskan Outfitters, said he’s seen a surge in shoplifting since the passage of SB 91.

“I get a sense that these criminals feel emboldened,” he said.

Most of the other testifiers, however, urged lawmakers to stick to SB 91 and give it a chance.

Speaking for the Alaska Federation of Natives, Nicole Borromeo said “the evidence is simply not there” when it comes to the need for changes. AFN favors making no changes before 2021.

Kara Nelson, director of Haven House in Juneau, asked lawmakers to keep SB 91 in place and said she has seen people turn their lives around at the halfway house she manages.

“Our public safety has definitely not been diminished because people are given opportunity to be parents and build communities together,” she said.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at or 419-7732.


More in News

Issues of affordability, public safety prominent in candidates’ minds

A busy week of candidate forums culminated in the annual League of Women Voters candidate forum on Thursday.

Allison Holtkamp and Donnie Gott smile as a storyteller arrives to rehearsal for “Same: Local Stories of Gender-Based Violence.” Holtkamp, director and producer of the show, and Holtkamp, storyteller and sound designer, said despite the show’s heavy topic, the experience of sharing stories is empowering and every story contains some levity.	(Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)
New show brings gender-based violence stories to the stage

“Same” will be different. The show, which is subtitled “Local stories of… Continue reading

Juneau Assembly candidates for the Areawide and District 2 seats are asked to raise their hand if they support the Juneau Access Project during a forum at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce during its weekly luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. District 2 candidate Emil Mackey did not attend the event because of work travel. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)
Economic-minded candidates talk future of business in Juneau

At Thursday’s Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Assembly candidates were probed about… Continue reading

Ron Flint takes a ride on the completed lower section of a mountain bike trail at the Eaglecrest Ski Area August 2015. Volunteers with the Juneau Freewheelers Cycle Club and Eaglecrest staff worked on the downhill trail. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)
Eaglecrest to explore mountain bike course, install new snowmaking

A mountain bike course might be in the works for Eaglecrest Ski… Continue reading

Passengers board an Alaska Airlines jet at the Juneau International Airport in December 2014. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)
Passenger elbows window after plane lands in Juneau

A man elbowed and damaged a window on an Alaska Airlines flight that had just landed in Juneau on Thursday.

Commerce boss takes leave to campaign for Walker

Mike Navarre, head of the state department of Commerce, Community and Economic… Continue reading

Mariyan Aleksiev, of Earthmovers, cuts into the pavement at the intersection of Franklin and Front Streets on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. This is not the intersection that will be closed Friday. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)
Downtown intersection scheduled to be partially closed Friday

As construction continues in downtown Juneau, the intersection of North Franklin and… Continue reading

Volunteers gather at the arch of Project Playground during the first day of the community rebuilt, Aug. 8, 2018. (Alex McCarthy | Juneau Empire)
Project Playground to reopen

For the first time since it burnt down in April of 2017, children will play at Project Playground.

Juneau Arts & Humanities Council Board Vice President Bing Carrillo gifts a piece of art to departing Board President Eric Scott during the JAHC annual meeting. Scott had served as president for three years and said he was feeling loss and melancholy.
New JACC pushes forward for funding

Demolition of the old Juneau Arts & Culture Center won’t start in… Continue reading

Most Read