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Enhancing Pretrial Justice in Alaska

Alaska courts are officially embarking on a new pretrial justice model after overcoming a case of cold feet last Fall. The new model is a product of the state’s comprehensive criminal justice reform law, Senate Bill 91, designed to divert low-level offenders away from incarceration. Back in October, some lawmakers tried to blame an uptick in crime rates for 2016 on SB 91. However, experts found no link to new policies enacted under the law. The new pretrial justice model shifts the determining factor for who should be jailed pretrial from the ability to pay bail to the level of threat each person poses to public safety.

Changing the system in this way means Alaska judges will now have better, more risk-sensitive information with which to determine sentencing and bail amounts on a case-by-case basis. While money bail is a useful tool for those that prove unlikely to show up for their day in court, low-level offenders should not be jailed based on their wallets. After a six-month study and 50 legislative hearings, Alaska’s legislators agree. They voted to supplement judicial discretion with risk-assessment tools that could help judges more clearly determine who requires pretrial detention, as well as who might benefit from an alternative such as community supervision or perhaps mental health treatment.

The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission discovered in their research that between 2005 and 2014, the pretrial population rose 81 percent. In an effort to relieve the heavy financial burden pretrial detention imposes on taxpayers, the commission recommended that judges consider risk assessment results when setting money bail. Money bail was a major factor in the rising costs of pretrial detention, some defendants being jailed for unable to pay as little as a few hundred dollars, regardless of risk. In passing SB 91, Alaska legislators agreed that certain people do not pose less of a threat just because they can afford a certain amount of bail. Spending can be held accountable to public safety outcomes more effectively by considering each defendant’s level of risk—rather than strictly relying on the size of defendants’ pockets.

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