Shrinking Budgets and the Drug Epidemic Create the Perfect Storm - Not SB 91
December 8, 2016
By: Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth
Change is hard but it can also provide opportunities. Last spring, an opportunity presented itself when our legislature and Governor Walker enacted Senate Bill 91, broadly reforming our criminal justice system. Before this happened, the legislature asked the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission to study our system and recommend changes. The Commission did this and came up with recommendations based on evidence of what worked in other states. This became the foundation for SB 91. The Commission – including Department of Public Safety Commissioner Monegan, Department of Corrections Commissioner Williams, and me as head of the Department of Law, all agree that SB 91 is the right path for our State. But it will improve public safety in the long run only if the State sees the reform efforts through. Tweaks will be needed to the new law, and the Commission will monitor implementation and recommend changes where needed.
SB 91 was needed because our prior laws were not working as we had hoped. Since 2005, when Alaska adopted “tough on crime” laws, our incarceration rates went through the roof. But increasing prison sentences did not reform criminals or make our communities safer in the long run. In fact, two-thirds of offenders released from jail were back behind bars within three years.
SB 91 offers an entirely new approach to criminal justice. Because substance abuse factors into most crimes and more than 40% of our inmates have mental health issues, a primary goal of SB 91 is to treat addiction and mental illness. SB 91 reduced prison sentences for all but the most serious crimes. We still aggressively prosecute serious crimes like homicides and sexual assaults and we will continue to seek long prison terms for violent criminals. But the legislature has told our prosecutors to think creatively when pursuing less serious crimes, especially where a substance abuse problem or mental health issue is a factor. Similar reforms in other states show these reforms can work.
We must all understand that these reform efforts won’t succeed if our criminal justice and public health systems are not adequately funded. But our State is facing a fiscal crisis as well as a drug epidemic. This is creating a perfect storm.
The state’s fiscal crisis has resulted in shrinking budgets throughout the criminal justice system. The Department of Law has lost 80 positions over the last four years and had its budget slashed over 26%. Our shrinking budget is largely used for three core priorities - prosecuting crime, protecting children who are in dangerous homes and protecting the State’s sovereignty including ensuring we collect dollars owed to the State and defending against federal overreach. While our budget has shrunk, the current drug epidemic has led to increased crime and more endangered children. For example, our child-in-need-of-aid (CINA) cases have gone up 55% in two years.
This perfect storm has pushed the Department of Law to its breaking point. Last year (before SB 91 was in effect), the number of criminal cases we had to decline to prosecute rose 6% because of budget cuts. The 6% of cases we did not prosecute let criminals go free who should have been held accountable – whether through fines, treatment, jail time, probation or other options. Because of our budget cuts and staff losses, we are forced to prioritize the crimes we prosecute and focus on the most serious offenses regardless of the direction given by SB 91.
Alaska also does not yet have enough treatment options available for those suffering from addiction or mental illness. The recent Medicaid expansion and additional money the legislature provided last year increased funding for treatment options, but more is needed. Within a year or two, we should see significant budget savings from reduced prison populations, and those savings should be reinvested.
More money is needed for our criminal justice system. Criminal justice reform will not work if there is no accountability or those who are diverted from jail are not given treatment. What other states have shown us is that up front funding results in long-term savings when we successfully rehabilitate low level offenders. Rehabilitating offenders increases public safety while saving the State money. That is the goal of SB 91.