Pass the crime bill

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 - 13:45

On Thursday, the Alaska House voted 28-11 to approve Senate Bill 91.

The Alaska Senate should concur with the amendments made by the House to this 114-page measure. Then, Gov. Bill Walker should sign it into law.

Alaska's criminal justice system is broken and desperately needs repair. Without significant changes, the state's prison population will continue to rise.

We already imprison more than 5,300 Alaskans, and according to a report compiled by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, the state's prison population will rise to nearly 7,000 people by 2024 unless we act now.

"On average, it costs $147 per day for someone to stay in prison, and it's not helping," said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, on Thursday.

Without the crime bill, the state will spend at least $169 million more over the next 10 years on corrections spending. That's not counting the possibility of a new prison. By the time Goose Creek Prison accepted its first prisoners in 2012, it had cost $240 million to construct. It now costs $50 million per year to operate.

It might feel good to throw someone in jail, but it doesn't change the math. The state of Alaska cannot afford this.

Furthermore, the rising number of prisoners bodes grim news for years to come. According to the justice commission report, two-thirds of Alaskans released from prison will return to jail in the next three years for another offense. Our prison system disrupts offenders' lives so much that they have no alternative to crime.

Just look at the crowd of panhandlers on Front and Franklin streets, or the people who go to the homeless shelter every day. Many of them have been released from Lemon Creek Correctional Center and, because of our criminal justice system, have nowhere to go.

They are homeless because of the deliberate actions of our judicial system.

Put yourself in their shoes. It might have been a minor offense, but what if you're poor. Can't make bail? You'll stay in prison until your hearing.

Can't get to work because you're in jail? You're fired.

Can't pay your rent because you've lost your job? You're homeless.

Your car breaks down? You're stuck.

Alaska has been tough on crime, but it hasn't been smart on crime, and we are seeing the consequences.

Senate Bill 91 is not a complete solution, and even its backers will admit that. Rather, it is an admission that there is a problem. There's a reason that's the first step in most 12-step programs.

It means you can get to work on fixing the problems.

In this case, SB 91 opens the door for better probation and addiction treatment. It means we'll start looking at addressing the root causes of our problems, rather than simply throwing people in jail.

SB 91 is an admission that the War on Drugs is an abject failure and the reason that the United States now imprisons as many people as North Korea does.

We cannot turn the world on a dime, but SB 91 will start the process in motion.

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