A Rebuke to Juneau Empire’s Earnest Prax, Regarding SB91

A Rebuke to Juneau Empire’s Earnest Prax, Regarding SB91

“We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” ~Ronald Reagan

Mr. Earnest Prax has written in the Juneau Empire that Representative Lora Reinbold is wrong in her criticism of SB 91, Alaska Criminal Justice Reform. However, much of the presumption in his criticism is based on the assertion that since we have people in jail, we as a society are doing something wrong. To measure the effectiveness of criminal justice based on the number of people in jail is a false measure.

We should not manage our jail populations based on a target jail population. Rather, we place individuals in the custody of the state based on their illegal actions and the likelihood of creating more victims due to illegal behavior on the part of that individual. The purpose is to prevent them from injuring other people in the future. Mr. Prax and the individuals that brought this legislation to pass seem to have lost sight of the purpose of prisons.

This legislation was not brought to pass by broad based research and support. It is the result of a special interest group, the Pew Charitable Trusts, who essentially wrote the legislation and paid lobbyists, Kent Dawson, to get it passed. The Attorney General involved has limited or no Criminal Law experience. The Denali Law Group (Public Defenders), Anchorage Municipal Prosecutors, Anchorage Police Department, and Alaska State Prosecutors were not involved in the development or passage of this legislation. Essentially, the law enforcement community was shut out of the process resulting in this legislation and many opposed its passage. In fact, Anchorage Police took a stand against this legislation.

As to the effects of this legislation, Mr. Prax is wrong again. Having spoken with prosecutors that have studied this legislation, I learned that although someone can still be arrested for Failure to Appear, and Theft under $250, those are now violations like a traffic ticket with no jail time. The exception is that Failure to Appear after 30 days can carry jail time, unless the individual tells the court that they tried to call the court, and then it’s a violation with no jail time. The prosecutor must now prove that they intended to evade prosecution for a crime, in order to prove the crime of Failure to Appear. They have changed the law such that these offenses are still technically a crime, but removed the prospect of jail as a consequence.

The real consequences of this legislation can be seen in the case of Jose Delgado, who is in sentencing in Juneau right now, as reported by the Juneau Empire. He has plead guilty to firing a gun from a moving car at someone last February, missing the individual by 8 inches. He has 21 prior convictions including a felony conviction in the fourth degree, misconduct involving a controlled substance, and seven convictions of misdemeanor assault. Mr. Delgado’s defense attorneys are arguing that now under SB 91 his prior convictions should not influence his sentence. That is after SB 91 reduced the sentencing window for this Class B felony from 1 to 3 years down to 0 to 2 years.

The intent of this legislation is to move towards decriminalization of drug abuse. Mr. Prax does not dispute that the legislation reduces penalties for misconduct involving controlled substances. However, he views this as a societal good. I disagree. Reducing legal repercussions and moving towards decriminalization will create a society in which drug use is tolerated. This will expose more people to drug use and create more victims and addicts, especially among the young. A drug addiction is destructive to the individual and a tragedy to a family. But, a society that creates an environment that condones or accepts drug addiction is culpable in creating the tragedy of drug addiction in people that otherwise would not have been exposed. Liberalization of drug policy is not the road to reducing drug abuse.

It is curious to me that people who argue that liberalization and decriminalization of drug use leads towards less abuse do not see the same in other antisocial behaviors. Could the same be said for Driving Under the Influence? Child abuse? Rape? Murder? Too often, we are swayed by anecdotal data and emotional pleas. Drug use is destructive to individuals and to society. We need to hold the line in order to prevent more families from experiencing the tragedy of drug abuse. Ask any recovering addict whether or not readily available drugs contributes to their recidivism.

Mr. Prax is concerned about the growth of prison populations in our state. And, the growth of prison populations is certainly disconcerting. I wish that individuals would make choices that keep them out of prison as well. However, Alaska’s prison population growth is well below national average. It is confusing to me that Mr. Prax claims Representative Reinbold oversimplifies a complex problem. Mr. Prax oversimplifies the complexity of a life that leads to prison. There are too many factors to calculate in a person’s life that leads to prison. It just doesn’t seem reasonable to say that we have too many people in prison because penalties for antisocial behavior are too severe.

Contrary to Mr. Prax’s claim, we do not generally imprison people for simple drug use. Only 4% of the prison population is there for drug possession. Those generally represent plea bargains to prevent prosecution for other crimes. It is acknowledged that prison in not an effective cure for drug addiction, but neither is returning drug addicts to the street without even the time to sober up. There is nothing within this legislation that establishes a program that has proven to combat drug addiction. Instead, it carves out a whole new role in the Department of Corrections and says that we will fund it through the savings created by releasing criminals on the streets of Alaska.

The worst part of Mr. Prax’s rebuttal is his ad hominem attack on Representative Reinbold when he characterizes her view as authoritarian and violating personal liberty. Nowhere did she insist or even request that someone, “obey her.” Instead, she maintains that people should obey the law. Her view is not authoritarian and her view doesn’t violate anyone’s personal liberty, quite the contrary. It is the rule of law that promotes individual liberty for the greatest number of people. It is the government’s role to prevent individuals from infringing on the rights and liberties of others through criminal behavior. I would like to thank Representative Reinbold. She has been a staunch defender of personal liberty. She has done this by making public safety a top priority, supporting the rule of law, and not yielding to outside special interests like Pew Charitable Trusts.

As Mr. Prax is fond of F.A. Hayek’s, “The Constitution of Liberty,” we should consult that work. Hayek defines freedom as, “The state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others.” The law which was changed by SB 91 is hardly arbitrary. What is an arbitrary infringement on the freedom of an individual is when criminals steal to support a drug habit or coerce through violence.

Hayek also insists that, “Liberty and responsibility cannot be separated. Liberty requires that the individual must bear the consequences of his actions.” Furthermore, Hayek allows for the state to, “Infringe a person’s protected private sphere only as punishment for breaking an announced general rule.” (Emphasis added) Hayek understood that the rule of law was necessary for maintaining the individual rights and freedoms for the greatest number of people and accounted for the government’s role in maintaining the rule of law.

Alaskan individuals and businesses should not have to suffer the consequences, intended or unintended, of policy dictated by outside special interests. Alaskans should stand up and demand repeal of SB 91.

Thomas Blackley is the Legislative Assistant in the office of Representative Lora Reinbold