Senate Bill 91: Criminal Justice Reform

Senate Bill 91: Criminal Justice Reform

The lag time between research and science and legislators and laws can be most easily measured in decades – and that’s how it is supposed to be. But for those left in the lurch, that place between generally accepted scientific fact and courtroom reality, it can mean years in jail or devastating pretrial detention for victimless “crimes” better described as diseases.

For the most part, the reforms in SB91 are rooted in a critical analysis, much of it by Pew, of years and years of data that show what we are doing now isn’t working.

This is a small step in the right direction.

The Anchorage Daily News article about SB91 notes that Pew has a lobbyist that makes $120,000 a year (about the cost of housing, just housing, an inmate convicted of a second crime of drug possession) advocating the passage of the bill down in Juneau. If this bothers you, here is the mission statement that guides Pew’s charitable work.

It cannot be said that Pew isn’t interested or doesn’t have an agenda, they do: implementing knowledge and research based reform. Victim’s rights groups and law enforcement have expressed concern with parts of the bill and are concerned that the savings realized from the passage of the legislation will not be reinvested into treatment and other mechanisms of reducing recidivism. This is a valid concern: we need more options to fight drug and alcohol abuse and treat the mentally ill. It’s going to take money to save money and the savings from this bill should be used to establish new non-incarceration pathways for addicts and shore up existing institutions. Federal dollars are also on the way to assist in this.

It is no small coincidence that this legislation comes at a time when Alaska's budget is collapsing under its own weight, and that gives credence to the concerns raised above, but it's important to remember that that does not mean the changes are bad or poorly thought out.

Most Alaskans have been happily free to pay little attention to our antiquated criminal statutes and few in government have been eager to appear soft on crime by updating them to match current beliefs and attitudes. The budget has forced a reconciling and for that we should all be happy. There is little to dislike in this legislation unless you’re of the mind that we should be implementing an income tax to house an inmate for a second possessory drug offense (using not dealing) for a minimum of two years at a cost of well over $100,000.

The budget caused it, but science and prevailing wisdom based on experience created it. And for that we should all be thankful.