Alaska’s U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan were among just 12 votes cast against the President Donald Trump-endorsed FIRST STEP Act aimed at reforming the federal criminal justice system.
The legislation passed 87-12 on broadly bipartisan lines, heading to the president’s desk in what the Associated Press described as a “a signature policy victory.”
Sullivan, in a video released Tuesday night, said he was concerned about the legislation’s impact on the opioid crisis and compared it to Senate Bill 91, the criminal justice reform bill passed by the Alaska Legislature in 2016 that’s become a popular political target for the state’s recent uptick in crime.
“I did not believe that this federal criminal justice reform that had some elements that were similar to SB 91 would be good for Alaska, particularly during a time where we’re all struggling with crime,” he said.
Sullivan rightly acknowledged that Alaska’s increase in crime can’t be solely blamed on criminal justice reform and that the recession and opioid epidemic have played a significant role, too. And to his credit, Sullivan has been involved in combating Alaska’s opioid and has worked with other pieces of legislation that aimed at boosting treatment and targeting synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
The Republican said he supported some of the broad concepts of the Trump-backed criminal justice bill, but said he couldn’t support some of the changes that could shorten sentences for violent offenders and drug traffickers.
“Some of the details of this bill, in particular the reduction of sentences for repeat drug traffickers and even the potential for reduced sentences or reduced time for violent criminals were things I could not support,” he said. “As we know, the combination of the recession, the opioid and heroin crisis and epidemic that’s hitting our state, and even, I think in some people’s mind, the criminal justice reform of SB 91 has lead to skyrocketing crime rates in many communities, including Anchorage.”
Why it matters
The federal FIRST STEP Act was heralded as sweeping criminal justice reform, but as Vox points out its impact will be fairly limited in reality. That’s because the federal prison system’s prisoner population of 181,000 inmates accounts for a tiny fraction of the country’s 2.1 million people in prison or jail.
The FIRST STEP Act won’t reach into the state and local criminal justice systems (that’s what bills like SB 91 are meant to do).
Alaskans also make up a tiny fraction of the overall 181,000 inmates in federal prisons, according to the Prison Policy Institute that estimates 510 Alaskans are in federal prisons (about 4,200 to 4,300 people are locked up in Alaska’s prisons).
Still, the law will make some significant changes for those 181,000 inmates, particularly around resolving long-standing racial bias in the nation’s sentencing laws.
- It’ll make retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that more closely aligned the penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. That could affect nearly 2,600 federal inmates, according to The Marshall Project.
- It reworks mandatory minimum sentencing by giving judges greater discretion in certain cases. It was previously limited to nonviolent drug offenders with no criminal background, but will be extended to people with limited criminal histories—about 2,000 additional people in the federal system would be eligible for this change.
- It reduces automatic sentences for violent crimes and major drug charges down to 15 years, and reduces the federal “three strikes” rule from a life sentence to a 25-year sentence.
- The legislation would also broaden the availability of shorter sentences for good time served and utilizing rehabilitative services while behind bars, potentially freeing about 4,000 more people according to The Marshall Project.
- It also reiterates that pregnant prisoners aren’t to be shackled and requires federal prisons provide women with free tampons and sanitary napkins. Both are existing policy for federal prisons, but have been ignored.