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Michael Haugen | May 9, 2016
Facing the prospect of a projected 27% increase to its prison population in the next ten years—at an additional cost to taxpayers of $169 million—Alaskan legislators are on the verge of passing Senate Bill 91, a sweeping reform bill seeking to stem such growth in the state’s corrections system while maintaining public safety.
SB 91 passed a floor vote in the House on Thursday by a 28-11 vote, and now heads back to the Senate for a concurrence vote on amendments.
Stark realities such as the impending double-digit growth in its prison population isn’t new to residents and legislators of the conservative-leaning Last Frontier State, as many other states have confronted similar situations. Consider Texas, for example, whose efforts in 2007 to blunt anticipated growth in its large corrections system has become canon among criminal justice reformers.
Lawmakers during that time grappled with the likelihood of needing 17,000 new prison beds to accommodate future growth, at a cost of several billion dollars. However, years of “tough on crime” policies that didn’t produce concomitant returns on public safety—recidivism rates to that point had been stubbornly high—made such an expense unappealing, and given a tight budget, untenable. Instead, legislators made a smaller, shorter-term investment of $241 million, aimed at implementing evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism, including an expansion of drugs courts, incentives to promote probation compliance, and swift, certain, and graduated sanctions for parole violations.
There can be no arguing with the results: In the ensuing years, parole revocations dropped 46 percent, recidivism fell, and overall crime rates have been at their lowest levels since 1968—an incredible feat of public policy, especially as these reductions paralleled huge growth in Texas’ general population. Additionally, the state has been able to avert over $3 billion in anticipated prison spending, and has reinvested much of those saved funds into further evidence-based, recidivism-reducing programs. In light of these successes, other conservative states—Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Utah, among others—have been emboldened to follow suit with reforms of their own, and have enjoyed similar results.
Which brings us to Alaska, and the choice before them in SB 91. As mentioned previously, Alaska faces much of the same challenges that Texas did in 2007, and SB 91 offers many of the reforms that Texas implemented that has made them the standard-bearer for conservative criminal justice reform—tailored, of course, to the specific drivers of Alaska’s corrections population. It implements evidence-based pretrial reforms by utilizing risk-needs assessments to inform release decisions, and provides meaningful supervision for defendants awaiting trial. It prioritizes prison space for serious and violent offenders—“those we’re afraid of, not those we’re mad at”—by limiting incarceration of nonviolent misdemeanants and expanding discretionary parole, instituting swift and certain sanctions, while strengthening probation and parole supervision to reduce recidivism.
It also reinvests almost $100 million into critical needs, including pretrial supervision, substance abuse programs, re-entry support, and violence prevention programming and victim’s services. Over ten years, as public safety improves, these reforms are expected to reduce the prison population by 13%, and save taxpayers as much as $379 million.
Conservative states have set the tone for criminal justice reform nationwide, providing the public with responsible and intelligent reforms—backed by many years’ worth of data and experience—that improves safety in communities, offers a chance at redemption, and utilizes taxpayer resources more efficiently. SB 91 offers Alaska the chance to continue this tradition.