Gov. Bill Walker and his administration rolled out a plan to address the rising trends in crime through a series of legislative and administrative measures on Monday, but the message was clear: a fiscal plan is the key to public safety.
Walker presented his “Public Safety Action Plan” with commissioners from the departments of Public Safety, Corrections, Law and Health and Social Services. The plan outlines changes—including the passage of Senate Bill 54—that can help the state address the recent spikes in crime.
The theme of the budget popped up in some of the commissioner’s speeches, with Department of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan explaining why budget uncertainty—not just budget cuts—are hurting the state by making it difficult to hire and retain enough qualified law enforcement officers.
“Perhaps our biggest challenge is to find enough dedicated men and women to fill our trooper and VPSO ranks,” he said. “We have stepped up our recruiting efforts but with 43 current trooper vacancies in a 285 trooper authorized force and 34 openings in a 78 authorized VPSO strength. This is where everyone of you can help, we believe that our state’s current unstable budget is a factor in attracting qualified individuals into state service. … You can help by encouraging your local legislators to address this uneasy situation.”
Walker described the situation that many young and prospective public safety officers are faced with “pink slip after pink slip after pink slip,” referencing the Legislature’s failure to pass a budget before the state had to begin warning of layoffs under a government shutdown.
Walker originally called the fourth special session to have the Legislature take up a proposed tax on wages and later expanded the scope to criminal justice by adding Senate Bill 54 to the call. Though the attention has been focused squarely on crime, Monegan and others said the budget situation is certainly a part of the equation.
“If one thing is clear to all of us,” Monegan added, “we cannot cut our way to a safer Alaska.”
The meeting wasn’t entirely about linking the budget to crime, and the administration’s action plan moving forward.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams spoke almost entirely on concrete measures Alaska’s prison system is exploring to reduce the chance prisoners commit new crimes. He outlined pretrial risk assessment, a tool created by Senate Bill 91 that helps evaluate the risk of people awaiting trial and puts some 50 to 60 more armed pretrial officers in the field. He said such a program has been proven to increase the likelihood people show up to court while also reducing the chance they commit another crime while waiting for trial.
He also outlined pending legislation that would authorize a prison industry program in Alaska that he said will help tackle Alaska’s recidivism rate that shows about two thirds of all prisoners turn to prison within three years. He said he’s already in talks with companies interested in a prisoner work program.
“The reason why that’s so important is because people getting out need to have a job and a place to live,” he said. “This is an important strategy that other states have used, and I’m sure that it’s going to be a strategy that’s going to help us finally address this recidivism rate that’s been bedeviling us for about 20 years.”
Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth also touched on the drivers of crime, making clear that the factors were at play well before the embattled Senate Bill 91 was signed into law.
“There are a number of factors behind our crime statistics. The main one that is driving a lot of this is the opioid crisis that happened in the last two or three years at the same time we were making cuts to public safety,” she said, adding the economic downturn can cause people to turn to crime. “While the factors that are leading to our crime statistics are multi-faceted, our approach must be mutli-faceted as well.”
— Batt Boo-xton (@mattbuxton) October 30, 2017
Other highlights include:
- The Department of Law is hoping for the funding to hire five more prosecutors, which includes one statewide drug prosecutor who’d work directly with the Department of Public Safety’s statewide drug team.
- Increased access to substance abuse treatment programs made possible with Medicaid expansion, which has funded about $43 million in substance abuse treatment according to Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson.
- New legislation to expand law enforcement authority to fight drug trafficking.
- Shift resources that aren’t currently being used in Public Safety due to vacancies to retain officers and other crime-fighting efforts.