At public safety forum, defenders of Senate Bill 91 speak out

Published: Sep. 11, 2018 at 7:17 PM AKDT
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A forum Tuesday on public safety turned into a spirited defense of the Legislature’s criminal-justice reform effort in 2015 — a measure that some legislators wanted to repeal last session.

The forum was hosted by Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, a former Anchorage prosecutor and acting mayor who is up for election this year. He and other people in attendance, including Sen. John Coghill, said the 2015 effort — Senate Bill 91 — was itself designed to increase public safety in Alaska.

Claman said the public is right to be concerned about crime, but said anger was misplaced when it came to efforts to repeal Senate Bill 91 in the most recent Legislature. He noted that the bill was a response to conditions, not the cause — like increasing prison populations brought on by longer sentences, high rates of recidivism and nonviolent people held before trial because they couldn’t afford bail. Other conditions worsened, he added: the opioid drug crisis and the recession in the Lower 48 and Alaska.

Claman said that Senate Bill 91 increased penalties for some of the most violent crimes — like first degree murder — even as it lowered others.

Coghill, a Republican from one of the most conservative communities in Alaska — North Pole — won’t face voters until 2020. By then, he said in an interview, he hoped people will understand what he was doing with Senate Bill 91. And if he loses his race then, he added, his family would still love him.

“It has forced me to be somewhat defensive, but it’s not about me — it’s really about public safety of Alaska,” said Coghill, also a panelist at the forum who sought in the interview to deflect some of the concern.

“It was really about what our Legislature did. It’s really about what a criminal justice commission did,” Coghill said. “It’s what we did in studies throughout the United States. It’s really a mixture of people that have come together to find solutions to our criminal issues, public safety, the return rate to prison, the cost of prisons, our lack of programs when people re-enter. What do we do in our pretrial? All those questions came to us.”

Claman said he applied for the grant from the U.S. Justice Department that ultimately paid for Tuesday’s forum at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Jeff Jessee, now the dean of the UAA’s College of Health but at the time of Senate Bill 91 the chief executive of the state’s Mental Health Trust Authority, said reform needs more time to work.

“Many of the strategies in Senate Bill 91 haven’t even been fully implemented,” he said in an interview after speaking at the forum. “We know, for example, that support for treatment programs that are necessary to make many of those strategies effective has not been provided in the degree necessary.”

Another speaker, Len Engel of the Boston nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute, said criminal justice trends in Alaska had been similar to other states. For instance in Mississippi, the state faced a crisis over whether it needed to spend $266 million by 2024 on prisons.

“They were not going to be able to spend this money,” Engel said. Instead, Mississippi took steps to decrease the prison population, such as by reforming sentencing.

Susanne DiPietro, director of the Alaska’s Judicial Council and a staff member of the organization that helped write Senate Bill 91, said the state was on an “unsustainable” growth pattern in prison population. Recidivism was a big part of the problem, she said, with two-thirds of released prisoners getting locked up again within three years. And pre-trial detention was unfair, she said, because rich defendants could afford bail, while low-income ones could not.

The situation of recidivism has been so extreme that some released inmates have been seen using drugs in the prison parking lot, said Dean Williams, the state’s Corrections Commissioner.