The currently proposed rollback of Senate Bill 91 could cost more than $4 million annually

(Photo by Carole Triem)

It’s not cheap to be tough on crime.

Imposing tougher penalties is estimated to increase the daily number of people behind bars in Alaska by between 108 and 285, costing the state up to $4.3 million a year, according to a new fiscal analysis of Senate Bill 54.

The Department of Corrections-generated fiscal note released to the House Finance Committee this week is the latest look at the cost of rolling back Alaska’s criminal justice reform effort, though it stops short of putting an official price tag on the legislation.

The range in cost of the bill would be between $1.6 million and $4.3 million annually based on the range of people who’d be imprisoned under the bill at a daily marginal cost of $41.49.

Much of the costs would come from adding jail time back for first-time class C felonies, which is estimated to send between 108 people per day and 163 people per day to prison at a cost of between $1.6 million and $2.4 million annually. Another 73 people daily could be jailed by an increased to the penalties for repeat class A misdemeanor convictions (raising it from 30 to 60 days behind bars) at a cost of up to $1.1 million annually.

The fiscal note also has numerous instances where the cost is unknown because there’s simply not enough information about how the changes would impact incarceration rates. These are mostly on items that were added in by amendments in the House Judiciary Committee.

Senate Bill 91 eased penalties on a wide variety of crimes because emerging research shows prison time alone is a poor tool for reducing the likelihood offenders commit new crimes in the future (it also is expected to save millions of dollars that are either tagged as pure savings or for reinvestment in programs aimed at further reducing crime).

Why it matters

The note should reignite the discussion around the cost of tougher penalties, something that’s so far been largely absent from the discussion. That absence has been particularly glaring given the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis (it is, after all, the reason the current special session was called in the first place). Gov. Bill Walker this week tried to frame the crime trends as part of the state’s overall budget crisis, which has caused cuts to public safety and prosecutors.

There are plenty of amendments to Senate Bill 54 planned for the House floor and it’ll be anyone’s guess what the cost of those measures will be.

The cost of Senate Bill 54 has shifted throughout the legislative process. It had a clear, $4.3 million fiscal note when it emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that note was ultimately made indeterminate when it emerged from the Senate Finance Committee.

What legislators are saying

Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, an Anchorage Republican who was once an ardent supporter of SB 91 but now supports rolling back some of its provisions, told the Alaska Dispatch News that she was fine paying the bill.

“Public safety is one of the most essential purposes of government. I mean, that’s one of the reasons government exists,” LeDoux told the paper. “It’s worth paying for.”

For others, the indeterminate fiscal note has been frustrating.

“We need to know what government’s costing,” said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara, according to the ADN.

What are the costs

  • The note from corrections, which is the only department with a non-zero fiscal note, breaks down the potential impacts of each change to sentencing guidelines contained in the current version of Senate Bill 54 as follows:
  • Restoring up to a year of jail time for a class C felony conviction would increase the daily prison population by between 108 people per day and 163 people per day at a cost of between $1.6 million and $2.4 million annually.
  • Increasing jail time for repeat class A misdemeanors to 60 days (up from 30) would increase the daily prison population by between zero people and 73 people, which comes with a cost of $1.1 million.
  • Increasing the penalty for violating conditions of release for a class B misdemeanor to up to five days would add up to nine people to the daily prison population at a cost of up to $136,294.65.
  • Increasing the penalty for fourth degree theft (up to $250) to a maximum of 10 days for the third conviction and active prison time for the second offense more would increase the daily prison population by up to eight people at an annual cost up to $121,150.
  • Increasing the penalty for a disorderly conduct conviction to five days (up from 24 hours) would add up to seven more people to the daily prison population at a cost of up to $106,006.95.
  • Increasing penalties for repeat convictions of third degree theft (between $250 and $1,000) would add up to 21 people to the daily prison population at a cost up to $318,020 annually.
  • Allowing people arrested on class C felony charges to be detained up to 48 hours (it’s currently 24) if the person’s release poses a threat to the community would add up to four people to the daily prison population at a cost of $60,575.40 annually.
  • Adding U-47700, a highly potent synthetic opioid, to Alaska’s list of controlled substances is not projected to increase the budget at this time because “there is not sufficient data at this time to determine the full impact to the prison population of this legislation.” (An explanation that will appear again.)
  • Requiring that prisons don’t release people who are intoxicated with alcohol above the legal limit to drive unless to a person willing and able to provide care has no cost estimate because “at this time there is not sufficient data to determine the full impact to the prison population.”
  • Eliminating administrative parole, which has rarely if ever been utilized since it was created, could increase costs but, again, “there is not sufficient data to determine the full impact to the prison population.”
  • Increasing the penalty for knowingly harming a uniformed officer to a range between seven and 11 years (up from five to nine years) has an unknown impact because “there is not sufficient data to determine the full impact to the prison population.”

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