Is SB91 working? A new report says it's helping

Anchorage (KTUU) — Mention Senate Bill 91, or SB91 in Alaska, and the conversation gets heated. It's often blamed when people talk about a spike in crime, especially car theft and shoplifting. People running for office often pound their fists about how they'll repeal it.

It was approved in 2016 as a criminal justice reform bill, but since its creation it's been blamed — fairly or not — as the reason crime increased.

Since that time the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission has focused on it in its annual report, which was released Thursday.

"It's working. Is it working as fast as we would like it to work? No, but everyone wants overnight change," said Rep. Matt Claman (D) Anchorage. "Just look at the depth of the opioid crisis, and even with efforts we're making, we're still seeing the overdose death rate go up, which suggests although we're making progress in some areas there's still a huge opioid addiction both in our community and throughout the country."

The report says that prison populations have gone down 4.8 percent, and that more violent offenders are in prisons than non-violent offenders. Additionally, more than 80 percent of people eligible to earn time off for probation or parole have complied with the conditions of their supervision and probation officer caseloads have decreased since reform, which allows officers to focus on people who need closer supervision, according to the report.

"The major complaints with the original legislation have been fixed," Claman said. "But the second part is that we're actually seeing the kinds of changes that are the goal of justice reform."

Claman says more focus now needs to get people with addictions into treatment.

When SB91 was created, lawmakers relied heavily on research and data compiled by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and Pew Charitable Trusts. The law was supposed to reduce the number of people in prison and cut correctional costs, but not impact public safety.

Fast forward a few months and the state was gripped in an opioid epidemic, and a dramatic spike in vehicle thefts.

Since its passage in 2016, SB91 has been tweaked, most notably by SB54 passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Walker in 2017. The law could possibly be subject to more changes, depending on who becomes the next governor.

"I would repeal it, a lot of the fixes have already been moved into SB54 which was a companion bill, a subsequent bill to 91, but I would repeal it because the people of Alaska have lost trust in this bill," said Mike Dunleavy, the Republican candidate for governor during a Channel 2 Debate.

"He was for it and now he's against it," former Sen. Mark Begich, the Democratic challenger, said during the same debate. "I get it, but here's the issue with SB91: you do have to clear the deck. It's a bigger issue than just that. As I mentioned earlier, you've got to put more public safety on the street, deal with corrections and give them the resources they need. You have to make sure reentry programs are funded appropriately."

Claman says he's heard from several people about tossing SB91.

"When people say that I say 'So do you really want to get rid of those longer sentences for murder?' and I haven't found anybody that says 'Oh, I want to get rid of that,'" Claman said.

The report recommends that further investments need to be made, like increasing substance use disorder funding and to expand the capacity for seriously mentally ill people to be assessed and treated outside the corrections system. It also says Department of Corrections staff should focus on rehabilitation and find more resources for "behind the walls" treatment, and that there needs to be a statewide strategic plan for therapeutic courts. Finally, the existing domestic violence programming plans need to be evaluated and the services for people on probation and parole need to be expanded.

Here are some other takeaways from the report released today:

-A recent analysis suggests that higher rates of pretrial detention for Alaska Native defendants, which has been documented in Alaska for many years, may be decreasing after the implementation of bail reform.

-More people are successfully completing probation and parole.

-More successful probation and parole discharges means fewer people are returning to prison for violating the conditions of their probation or committing a new crime, another factor contributing to the decrease in the overall population.

-Since the enactment of criminal justice reform, over $40 million has been reinvested in treatment, reentry services, violence prevention services and criminal justice reform implementation.

You can read the full report here or view the attachment at the top of the story.