My Turn: Reinbold is wrong about Alaska’s criminal justice reform

  • By ERNEST PRAX
  • Thursday, July 21, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Rep. Lora Reinbold recently argued in the Juneau Empire and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that Senate Bill 91 (criminal justice reform) will not reduce recidivism or improve public safety, but will lead to increased crime and general societal decline.

Her critiques over simplify complex issues, lack proper historical context, inaccurately portray justice reinvestment and misstates the rule of law.

SB 91 (and its predecessor SB 64) recognizes that Alaska receives poor returns for its criminal justice spending. Two-thirds of Alaskans passing through the Department of Corrections recidivate within three years. Alaska’s prison population is expected to grow by 1,416 people by 2024 and require at least $169 million in new spending. Rep. Jerry Madden, the man who led Texas’ justice reinvestment, repeatedly told other legislators we are imprisoning not only those we are afraid of, but those whom we are mad at.

Rep. Reinbold claims SB 91 redefines crime so that “…the statistics can show a reduction in crime.” I urge readers to review the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission’s website and decide whether her claims are accurate. SB 91’s vetted ‘Smart Justice’ polices of focusing on violent offenders, implementing accountability-based monitoring, reintegrating prisoners into society, and reinvesting savings into crime reducing strategies have been successfully implemented in conservative states such as Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky and Utah.

It stretches credibility to suggest the Legislature and a commission composed of members including two conservative legislators, the Attorney General, Department of Corrections, law enforcement, crime victim advocates and the court system simply “redefined crime” in order to claim success.

Rep. Reinbold correctly notes that SB 91 does not require expected financial savings to be invested in recidivism reduction programs. But she neglects to mention that dedicated funds are unconstitutional. It is intended that $99 million be invested toward pre-trial services and supervision, victims’ services and violence prevention, DOC treatment and prisoner re-entry support.

Rep. Reinbold does not specifically document how SB 91 no longer requires sober living for probation or parole. A review of SB 91 shows multiple components requiring sobriety. Sobriety is a key component of Alaska’s existing and new criminal justice policies.

Contrary to Rep. Reinbold’s contention, failure to appear for a hearing or violating conditions of release are arrestable and bail revocable violations under SB 91.

Rep. Reinbold alleges that making theft under $250 a non-jailable offense “virtually decriminalizes theft” and removes drug addicts’ incentive to quit. Theft is still a crime in Alaska and she fundamentally misunderstands drug addiction and successful treatment.

A significant body of research shows that criminals do not make the same moral or risk/reward decisions as lawful citizens and that imprisoning low-level offenders does not meaningfully reduce crime. The question is whether jailing someone at $150 per day for a $250 crime is the most cost effective remedy available. Is simply jailing drug abusers a moral or prudent way to help them resolve their troubles?

Rep. Reinbold is correct, though not in the way she alludes, that SB 91 releases criminals into the streets. Alaska over-criminalizes and over-incarcerates. Seventy-five percent of sentenced offenders were convicted of non-violent crimes and 61 percent of felony offenders had no prior felonies. Over the past 10 years, our prison population grew by 27 percent — three times faster than the resident population.

A criminal record’s collateral consequences can severely hinder successful societal reintegration. SB 91 and SB 64 strengthen prisoner reentry while maintaining public safety.

Rep. Reinbold suggests that Alaska’s justice reforms are predicated upon the belief that current policy was built without regard to data or research. I did not hear this argument presented during committee deliberation. The argument is that while the current system may have successful components, it has numerous pitfalls.

Rep. Reinbold’s most grievous error is her concept of the rule of law. She states that “a society’s laws define what is impermissible and thereby what is condoned,” and that SB 91’s adjusting of criminal penalties is “ … signaling that these actions are viewed as acceptable or at least not as objectionable as they once were.” She is glaringly wrong.

The law protects individual rights and liberties, and provides a means of redress when they are violated. The Declaration of Independence magnifies her error: “… all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, … That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” To quote John Locke: “The end of the law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

Rep. Reinbold’s “obey me or go to jail” authoritarian worldview violates personal liberty and as shown by Frederic Bastiat in “The Law” and F.A. Hayek in “The Constitution of Liberty,” is violent coercion. It views society as unable to live morally without a benevolent legislative hegemon.

SB 91 does not condone criminal behavior; it recognizes that current practices are not working and a new course is needed.

Alaska’s justice reinvestment reforms are positive steps toward improving our criminal justice system. They also require careful study and deliberation. SB 91 should not be repealed, and Rep. Reinbold’s authoritarian concept of justice should be rejected.

• Ernest Prax lives in Fairbanks and was a House Judiciary Committee aide when Sen. John Coghill’s first justice reinvestment bill, SB 64, passed the Legislature.

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