The wave of crime afflicting Southcentral Alaska may be showing signs of leveling off. Some types of property crime, like car theft, are even dropping, according to Anchorage police statistics.

This may be one result of beefed-up law enforcement, with more police on the streets in Anchorage and more prosecutors hired by the state. But it also appears that a sweeping — and controversial — criminal justice reform bill passed by the Legislature in 2016 is at least partly working, criminal justice experts say.

The legislation was Senate Bill 91, which performed a major overhaul of sentencing and probation for a variety of crimes. It toughened some sentences for major crimes and eased penalties for minor offenses.

The bill also appropriated substantial funds for drug counseling and rehabilitation, as well as with programs to help released inmates readjust to society and finding places to live and work. Those parts of SB 91 seem to be working.

One telling statistic is that the rate of recidivism, or released inmates being returned to prison for new offenses, is trending down. Over the last three years, during which SB 91 has been in effect, recidivism has dropped from 67 percent to 61 percent, according to state corrections officials.

Two other trends that are encouraging is a decrease in auto theft in Anchorage in 2018 compared with 2017, of about 5 percent. While that is a small change, it follows three years of rising car thefts. There was also a sharp, 40 percent decline in the number of opioid overdose deaths in Alaska 2018, compared with 2017, down from 100 to 58.

Car thefts and opioid deaths are important indicators. Opioid overdoses broadly reflect the amount of drugs being consumed while car thefts are the easy-to-commit crimes of choice for drug addicts looking for a quick way to make money for a new purchase.

The fact that both are trending down in 2018 could show an easing of the drug epidemic, which is seen as the main cause of the crime wave, particularly property crimes, like auto theft.

SB 91 still gets most of the blame for crime and for politicians “Repeal SB 91” fits neatly on a bumper sticker. The new law went into effect in 2017, just as the crime wave was hitting its peak. Parts of SB 91 that eased sentences and probation rules were heavily criticized and blamed for causing, or at least fueling, the crime wave.

Repeal SB 91” is popular bumper sticker

Amid the public furor, “Repeal SB 91” became the slogan of choice for politicians who wanted a simple explanation for a complex issue. Crime always has a multitude of causes, but the recent wave in Southcentral Alaska appears to result mainly from rising use of drugs and the scramble by addicts to get money for more drugs, often by stealing.

Reductions in the number of law enforcement staff, particularly police officers in Anchorage were also a factor. Prosecutors in the state law department were reduced as Alaska’s budget crisis hit in 2016. Gov. Bill Walker found more money for prosecutors and state troopers in the current year state budget, Walker’s last. Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who took office in December, is keeping that money in the budget for next year despite continued state budget problems.

There were also changes made to SB 91. In 2017, as public criticism mounted, legislators realized some sentencing reductions went too far and those were changed in another bill, SB 54, in 2016. Legislators did more fine-tuning in 2017 in another bill.

However, jail admissions for minor thefts, the kind most closely tied to drug abuse, did continue to rise through 2017 (data for 2018 is not yet available), according to data from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission. In contrast, felony theft admissions to jail, which are more serious crimes, also increased but at a much slower pace.

Misdemeanor theft admissions to jail over three years rose from 825 to 1,544. theft admissions rose from 669 to 816, the justice commission said in its 2018 annual report.

What has worked well

The part of SB 91 that helped with drug recovery and post-release readjustment has been a success. Corrections officials said the money made available in SB 91 was to help prisoners with their drug problems and to begin their re-entry programs to ease the transition once they are released.

Money for behavioral health programs, for substance abuse and mental health, is a critical part of this because a majority of Alaskans entering prison have problems with drug abuse or mental illness, or both. Over $40 million was invested in treatment, re-entry services and violence-prevention services through SB 91, the justice commission said in its November report.

The commission, with 13 members, was created by the Legislature in 2015 to make recommendations on improving criminal laws, public safety, rehabilitation, victim restitution and reducing costs. Its recommendations provided the framework for SB 91, which was also built on successful programs in other states.

This money provided through SB 91 helped pay for substance abuse treatment in prisons as well as medication-assisted treatment and assessment services and outpatient services done in “halfway” houses, where inmates being released spend time readjusting.

Once released, counselors provide reentry services in several communities including Anchorage and Mat-Su, Fairbanks, Juneau and Dillingham; there are also reentry coalitions with community volunteers in Dillingham, Ketchikan, Nome and the Kenai Peninsula. Housing assistance is provided through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and Partners Reentry Center, an Anchorage nonprofit.

Could Dunleavy’s budget undercut progress?

Meanwhile, justice advocates fear that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s recent state budget could undercut progress through its deep cuts in behavioral health funding and particularly Medicaid, the state-federal health care program that helps finance substance abuse and mental health treatment for inmates both in prison and after their release.

This would likely have the effect of rekindling the crime wave because released offenders with their drug addiction intact will likely return to committing easy crimes, such as property theft to purchase drugs. If these offenders are returned to jail, which is likely, their chances of successfully rejoining society at some point are sharply diminished. Also, prison populations and costs will start increasing again, undercutting the governor’s effort to reduce the state budget.

Meanwhile, Dunleavy is proposing his own “get tough on crime” ideas in a package of new bills submitted to the Legislature. Hearings are now being held in legislative committees on the bills. Essentially, the proposals toughen sentencing on offenses, like sex crimes and drug dealers who deal in large quantities of controlled substances. Some of those are viewed positively by experts and were among proposals by the criminal justice commission, but it is too early to understand the overall effect of other changes proposed by the governor.

What was attempted in SB 91?

The principle aim of SB 91 was to make criminal sentencing in Alaska more rational and compassionate, with a secondary objective of slowing or even reducing the rising numbers of people in prison who were causing state corrections costs to explode.

Prisons in Alaska were, and still are, approaching their capacity. Legislators were reluctant to send more inmates out of state because that, in the long run, adds to costs.

If nothing was done to slow the increase, however, within a short time, the state would be forced to build a major new prison that would cost several hundred million dollars.

While the cost of building new prisons was a major consideration there was also evidence that time in prison wasn’t really an effective deterrent, the justice commission said in its report. “Researchers have determined that incarceration rates have not affected crime rates since the 1990s, and that we experience diminishing returns with increased incarceration,” the commission said.

To deal with this, a major thrust of SB 91, in addition to new money for drug and alcohol counseling and treatment, was to reduce the number of low-level offenders held in jail or prison by easing sentences for certain crimes combined. That was combined with reforms in probation and pre-trial bail bonding for low-risk offenders in minor crimes.

By reducing the number of low-risk prisoners held for minor crimes the Department of Corrections would be able to focus its available resources on prisoners convicted of serious crimes, it was argued.

Some parts of SB 91 increased sentences for serious crimes, such as for first and second-degree murder. Sentences for sex offenders were saw no change, but the new governor now proposes to toughen those. In the lightening of sentences the Legislature provided a suspended sentence for possession-only drug offenses, at least for the first and second offense. There are now fewer people sent to prison for drug possession.

However, Dunleavy want to toughen penalties for major drug dealers, a change which the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission endorsed.

SB 91 also reduced prison penalties for minor theft, which prompted major criticism from retail operators who complained that shoplifting was soaring because there were no longer serious penalties.

The legislation also focused on two subgroups of the prison population that were growing fast, a large pretrial population, mainly of people unable to make cash bails, and lengthy jail terms for those convicted of technical (non-crime) violations of parole or probation.

Overall strategy worked; prison populations, and costs, fell

The overall strategy appears to have worked, however, and the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission prison populations did fall about 4.8 percent from the period before SB 91 became effective in 2017 to spring, 2018, or the last quarter of Fiscal Year 2018, the justice commission said in its report. The decrease was enough that the corrections department was able to close one of its facilities in late 2016.

However, the prison population did tick up again slightly following the Legislature’s changes to SB 91 to toughen certain sentences, in SB 54. But overall, the percentage of people in prison for violent crimes have increased and the percentage of those charged with nonviolent, minor crimes, or those being held awaiting trial, has decreased.

Despite, the recent rise in admissions to prison due to more aggressive law enforcement, “it appears that these new pretrial procedures have helped keep corrections costs down. If pretrial defendants had been detained at the old rate, DOC (the Department of Corrections) might have had to reopen its shuttered facility,” the justice commission said in its November report for 2018.

The savings have allowed the state corrections department to focus more resources toward working with serious offenders, the commission said. This was another of the goals of SB 91.

The success of the easing of pretrial rules and bail requirements is clearly working among non-violent offenders: Although more people are being released on bail the attendance at court hearings is the same as under the old system, the criminal justice commission said in its report. Typically about 13 percent of people charged miss a hearing, and that hasn’t changed, the commission said.

Another indicator is that more people are successfully completing their probation and parole. New rules for probation credits and early discharge from probation and parole, allowing low-risk offenders, those most likely to follow the rules, to complete their probation and parole earlier. That eases up caseloads for probation officers, allowing them to focus on higher-risk individuals, the commission said in its report.

Legislature backtracked on one SB 91 change: Shoplifting

One area where the Legislature backtracked on changes in SB 91, and from previous recommendations of the justice commission, was on minor theft involving property values of under $250, mostly shoplifting. The change in SB 91 eliminated jail time for first and second-time offenders of minor theft.

“Research had shown that for these type of offenses, jail time was no better at reducing recidivism (returning to jail) than other sanctions, such as fines or probation, and in some cases could increase a person’s risk of recidivism,” the commission wrote in its report.

However, after retail merchants complained about soaring rates of shoplifting, the Legislature reinstated jail time for minor theft with maximum stays of five, 10 and 15 days in jail for the first, second and third offenses.

Tim Bradner is copublisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and Alaska Economic Report

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