A society’s laws define what is impermissible and thereby what is condoned.
Representative Lora Reinbold – Governor Walker has signed SB 91, enacting it into law. It has been hailed as a criminal justice reform and budget saving step forward. But, let’s peel back the marketing labels and look at what the law actually does. These are among the changes the law makes:
- It reduces possession of less than one gram of heroin (or any Schedule IA drug) from a Class B Felony to a Class C Felony.
- It generally reduces misconduct involving a controlled substance one Class, resulting in lower penalties.
- It makes broad claims about cost savings, but does not require that those savings be appropriated for recidivism reduction programs.
- It deletes the requirement for Sober Living as part of the programs for rehabilitation and recidivism reduction for persons on probation or parole.
- Renders Failure to Appear for a hearing, Violating Conditions of Release, and Driving With a Suspended, Canceled, or Revoked License unenforceable. The Municipality had to pass an Emergency Order to address these serious weaknesses.
- It virtually decriminalizes theft under $250. An individual who would have received a year flat as a worst offender with 10 or more convictions of theft on Sunday will now receive no jail time no matter how much they steal, as long as it’s under $250. Drug addicts will now have free rein to continue their habit and will have no economic incentive to stop using.
- It poses increased risk to Public Safety officers and the public by releasing more criminals onto the streets.
- It makes it more difficult to prosecute criminals than it is today reducing the chance of successfully removing violent offenders from free society.
There are some good items in the law. It does require individuals who are convicted of a Class C Felony or greater involving possession, distribution, or use of a controlled substance to successfully complete probation or parole, successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program, and comply with requirements of a reentry plan in order to be eligible for Food Stamps or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. But, there is no requirement for drug testing to acquire this assistance which will render it unenforceable.
While appropriating state money for programs with a track record of reducing recidivism would be wise money, this law does not do that. Instead, it reduces the penalties for crimes and inhibits the prosecution of criminals. It is built upon false premises.
Claims that current criminal justice policy was built without regard to data or research are not true. In fact, much of the current policy was developed into what is known as “Broken Windows” or Community Policing utilizing a system called CompStat over the last 30 years. The current reform being pushed by Pew Charitable Trusts is in reality a redefinition of crime in the law. By redefining what a criminal act is, the statistics can show a “reduction” in crime. However, the interactions between individuals have not changed. Just because the law is changed such that possession of less than a gram of heroin is no longer a Class B Felony resulting in fewer Class B Felony convictions, it doesn’t mean that you have reduced the number of people that possess heroin. In fact, you will probably increase the number of people possessing drugs as you reduced the legal consequences of drug possession. The same is true for other crimes.
Additionally, another premise behind current criminal justice reform is that we have too many people locked up for non-violent, drug possession offenses serving long sentences. However, according to The Manhattan Institute1:
- 47 percent of incarcerated Americans are in prison for violent crimes, compared with only 20 percent for drug-related crimes.
- Less than 4 percent of prisoners were convicted merely of drug possession, and many of those cases represent plea bargains from more serious offenses; out of 70,000 federal convictions in 2015, there were a total of 198 convictions for simple drug possession—of which just six were for simple possession of crack cocaine.
- Only 3 percent of violent victimizations and property crimes lead to imprisonment; even among convicted felons, less than half receive a prison term, and most of those are out in less than three years.
- The average number of prior convictions for inmates released from state prison is five; the average number of prior arrests is more than ten.
- Among convicted felons sent to prison, the median sentence is 30 months; for violent felons, it is 48 months.
Furthermore, there is nothing in this law that addresses inmate victimization by other inmates, a critical issue within our prison system. As long as we imprison people for violations of the criminal code, we have an obligation to protect them from extortion, sexual abuse, assault, battery, and murder. These are real problems in our prisons and further victimize individuals, increasing the difficulty of rehabilitation.
The Constitution of the State of Alaska states:
This constitution is dedicated to the principles that all persons have a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the enjoyment of the rewards of their own industry; that all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law; and that all persons have corresponding obligations to the people and to the State.
All political power is inherent in the people. All government originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the people as a whole.
Unfortunately, SB 91 fails to enact any new protections for inmates. It fails to allocate funds for proven recidivism reduction programs. The results of SB91 will be releasing criminals and inhibiting the prosecution of future criminals, increasing real crime not just the redefined, measured portion. One of the fundamental obligations of government is to enact and enforce laws that guarantee the individual rights as defined in the Constitution. In this regard, SB 91 fails to meet the requirements of the Alaska Constitution that all citizens including victims of crime have the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the enjoyment of the rewards of their own industry. It does so by inhibiting the prosecution of criminals thereby creating more victims.
It fails to further protect the constitutional rights of inmates to life even though their right to liberty has been curtailed through due process of law. Therefore, SB 91 fails to meet the requirements of the Alaska Constitution in that it be instituted for solely for the good of the people as a whole.
By redefining what is a crime and the severity of crime, we can pretend that it doesn’t exist through statistics. We can even claim to be saving money by not incarcerating as many people that commit crimes. However, we are also defining what is acceptable and condoned in our society. We are signaling that these actions are viewed as acceptable or at least not as objectionable as they once were. We are signaling that public safety and public safety officers are not as important as reducing prison populations. This will have unintended consequences like increased crime, decreased property values, increased risk to law enforcement, and more victims.
Those that promote the liberalization of moral codes are never around later to accept responsibility for the second and third order effects of their actions. We may save some money in a budget, but the other side of the balance sheet will be paid bysociety. Who will calculate the cost to innocent individuals and society for increased violence and crime even if it is no longer defined as such under the law? Who will calculate the loss of property values in neighborhoods as crime takes root? Who will take responsibility for the expansion of urban blight?
Luckily for us, California is leading the way and we can look to their results. Again, according to The Manhattan Institute:
- California’s experiment with de-incarceration has reversed years of declining crime rates in a matter of months.
- Enjoying a 14 percent decline in violent crime and a 6 percent decline in property crime over four years, California implemented Proposition 47 in November 2014 to eliminate prison sentences for various property and drug crimes. The state’s jail and prison populations began declining immediately thereafter.
- But within six months, violent crime rose by 13 percent and property crime by 9 percent, entirely erasing the gains of the previous years. California’s prison population has stopped falling, and its jail population is rising again.
These “reforms” are not new. They were tried in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the 30 years from 1960 to 1990, violent crime saw an increase of 353%. Do we really want to go back to 1970’s New York? There are very few new ideas, only new packaging.
SB 91 is bad public policy with many far reaching negative effects and is in need of repeal.
Representative Lora Reinbold is from Eagle River District.