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Crime is Generally Down, but Not In Alaska. How Should State Lawmakers Respond?

State lawmakers’ response to Alaska’s increasing crime rates reflects the common but incorrect assumption that increasing incarceration is an effective way to combat crime.

April 2, 2018

Over the last two decades, crime has fallen dramatically in the United States, down to about half the rate in 1991, when rates were the highest in our nation’s history. Despite what you may hear from the Justice Department, most states are experiencing their lowest crime rates on record.

But Alaska is not. While property crime and homicide have fallen since 1991, violent crime remains high. In fact, Alaska’s violent crime rate is on the upswing and ranks among the highest in the nation. Residents are so frustrated they’re organizing patrols on their own, the Anchorage Daily News reported this week.

Unfortunately, the response so far by state lawmakers reflects the common but incorrect assumption that increasing incarceration is an effective way to combat crime.

As recently as two years ago, the state was more forward-thinking in its tactics. In 2016, lawmakers passed an ambitious law aimed at reforming its criminal justice system. The measure instituted a “pre-trial” system to monitor defendants in lieu of jail before trial for many lower-level and first-time offenders, and reduced sentences for many individuals convicted of non-violent crimes.

The law was the product of a comprehensive and data-driven 2015 report by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, and implementing its required changes was “projected to reduce the state’s prison population by 13 percent by 2024, saving the state $380 million.” It was to take effect in three stages. In 2016, sentencing and probation changes took effect. On January 1, 2017, the law expanded programs to assist in prisoner reentry. Changes to bail practices and pre-trial release were to ramp up at the beginning of this year.

During that window, Alaska endured an increase in crime. Though murder and arson went down slightly, the rate of most other crimes climbed. It was amid that environment that I traveled to Alaska and spoke with local members of law enforcement, court administrators, advocates, and others involved with the criminal justice system. They said that they were working hard on implementing the criminal justice reforms, but they were concerned that the measure would be repealed by lawmakers anxious to appear to address the rise in crime before the law was even fully implemented.

By November 2017, it became clear that “tough on crime” lawmakers were going to roll back the reform bill’s biggest provisions, many of which are best practices that have gained support from officials across the country on both sides of the aisle, along with law enforcement, researchers, and reform advocates. That month, the legislature passed and the governor signed a new measure overriding the reforms. The bill will convert some misdemeanors into felonies (such as lowering the threshold for a property crime to be considered a felony), increase sentences for a number of crimes, and allow jail time for technical violations of pretrial release conditions.

But this is all based on a mistaken notion that reforms to reduce the prison population caused this increase in crime. Our research shows that increasing incarceration does not reduce crime – and other studies show it is incredibly costly to society. In fact, we’ve found that nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison population is behind bars with no compelling public safety reason. We estimate that safely reducing incarceration by enacting proportional sentencing, giving judges discretion, and other changes in this blueprint could save states $200 billion over the first 10 years.

Alaska should adopt the research-based recommendations of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission embodied in the 2016 law. Through reforms such as evidence-based pretrial release, eliminating secured money bond, and prioritizing prison space for those convicted of serious violent crime, the state could save a significant amount of money without risk to public safety.

Increasing incarceration will have negative impacts on countless families, disproportionally in poor communities and communities of color. It is unjust, unwise, and bad public policy. It will prove costly, and it will bring little safety benefit to Alaskans. Alaska lawmakers should reconsider their decision and once again join the rising bipartisan chorus embracing criminal justice reform.

*The description of the Alaska bills in the 4th and 7th paragraphs was updated April 4.