Four questions legislators should be asking themselves about crime

Something might be going on in there.The Alaska State Capitol building as photographed in 2010. (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman/Creative Commons)

The second week of the special session is underway, and the marquee bill of the session—Senate Bill 54—has now reached the House Finance Committee, which held a marathon public testimony session over the weekend and plans to hold another testimony session tonight.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee was a spectacle of bad behavior and things stand to get even further out of hand as the House Finance Committee gets its turn with Senate Bill 54. The committee’s a potential powder keg with legislators facing high-stakes 2018 races in an election year that that could become dominated by crime. The committee will hold its first real hearing on the bill at 1 p.m. today.

It’s not a great outlook, but the situation could be helped if legislators keep a few basic questions in mind.

What will actually make it better?

There’s been plenty of talk about the role Senate Bill 91 has or hasn’t had in the rise in crime. Even without clear conclusions, many opponents have all but promised that a repeal of Senate Bill 91 is the cure-all for Alaska’s crime woes when every expert or state official warns the problem is far more complicated. There’s the opioid crisis, a downturn in the economy and deep cuts to law enforcement and prosecutors to also weigh. Any material change, the experts say, will require attention to all those issues and time.

The one place there’s been agreement (mostly) between state officials and the experts is on the version of Senate Bill 54 that passed the Senate.

Legislators should be asking themselves and the experts whether they know enough to make it better. Will proposed amendments to SB 54—like Rep. David Eastman’s amendment to increase the penalty for ignoring or damaging a road safety sign or barricade—will make a difference? So far, the answers from the departments of Law, Corrections and Public Safety in most of those cases have been, “No, it won’t help” or “We don’t know.” Legislators are searching for ways to put their stamp on the criminal justice issue, but shouldn’t be adopting solutions because they sound good or comforting. That’s how unintended consequences are introduced.

Gov. Bill Walker will be announcing some sort of “public safety action plan” with Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth at a news conference this morning. It’s likely an attempt to put a lid on the anti-SB 91 fervor, but could provide some material for legislators hoping to comfort their constituents.

Could we be making it worse?

On the flip side, legislators in their rush to answer the frenzy around crime trends could get it wrong.

Last week’s shocking headline about how Senate Bill 91 took away jail time for egregious crimes against minors was the most stinging indictment of criminal justice reform yet, but people familiar with the law pointed out that the change was rooted more in the 2003 rewrite of sex crimes in Alaska (also, on a separate note, sexual abuse of a minor in the third degree used to be charged as “Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor”) which itself was a hurried response to public outcry. Either way, it’s a lesson about a rushed and complex process getting out of hand.

As the House Judiciary Committee worked through its marathon amendments, we were struck by how frequently legislators appeared lost and unsure about what they were voting on. It’s not that hard to see how that rushed process could result in headaches later. Taken together, it’s a case to either slow down the bill, which would mean potentially saving it for the regular session, or passing what’s already been vetted in the original version of Senate Bill 54, which is Gov. Bill Walker’s preference.

Still, it’s unrealistic for Walker to expect a completely unaltered version of 54 to reach his desk, but it’s important for legislators to carefully consider their changes so they’re not back in a few months to clean up a mess. Just as they should be asking what could make it better, they should be asking if their changes could make it worse.

Is public opinion better than expert opinion?

Plenty of legislators have already made up their mind on this point, as was illustrated in the Alaska Dispatch News’ article “Alaska lawmakers who supported crime bill last year are now trying to reverse it.” There, we see the motivations of legislators laid bare: Opponents of Senate Bill 91 like Sen. Mia Costello are “more inclined to listen to her constituents … than to the academic research underpinning SB 91.”

The thing is—as with almost everything related to public policy—people get their information from their legislators. If their legislator is inclined to agree, echo and never challenge constituents’ perception of an issue, then it becomes self-reinforcing. Tell your constituents SB 91 is to blame (because, perhaps, you don’t want to talk about the other more complicated and costly problems at play) and before long you’ll start to hear it back.

“They feel that by echoing the public outcry they’re doing the right thing,” North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, the sponsor of SB 91, told the ADN. “I just disagree with them.”

The experts are, after all, pushing for a limited rollback of SB 91 on the issues included in SB 54. So at least there’s some agreement between the two camps.

Is the budget (and a new tax) the solution?

The House Majority coalition has made it pretty clear that it’d like to get done with Senate Bill 54 sooner than later so it can take up the budget. Some members have directly linked the issue of revenue and the crime rates, pointing to cuts to prosecutors and troopers. While it’s likely cuts to prosecutors and law enforcement officers have contributed more to the perception of skyrocketing crime trends, it’s probably also not a cure-all that legislators should be promising.

According to an article by the UAA Justice Center, the research shows piling on police officers hasn’t necessarily been shown to decrease crime. “The accumulated research on the topic has found that adding police does not decrease crime,” explains Troy C. Payne, an associated professor at the Justice Center. “But that does not mean we can reduce police force size without consequence. ”

Taken in total, there won’t be any easy, fast or cheap answer to the problem. It’s critical that legislators realize that and enact sensible evidence-driven changes. But that’s probably too much to hope for.

This is the Alaska Legislature, after all.

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