by Carmen Gutierrez
Alaska Dispatch journalist Dermot Cole recently encouraged the Legislature to approve a provision that would provide health insurance coverage to the families of troopers killed in the line of duty. While this is no doubt a worthy cause, it should stand on its own merits, and not as a last minute, potentially unconstitutional amendment. Slipping it into the crime bill as an amendment is reckless and could kill both the health insurance provision and the most comprehensive criminal justice reform bill our state has ever seen.
The Legislature’s own legal advisors have warned that putting an amendment like this into the crime bill violates the state constitution’s requirement that any bill be limited to a single subject, in this case that subject is criminal justice policy. While bail, sentencing, parole, probation, prisoner reentry, and victims’ rights are all clearly related to criminal justice policy, medical benefits for police officers’ families is not. If passed into law, the law would be vulnerable to litigation, and could be struck down by the courts. All of it could be struck down, not just the medical benefits piece. This would be a huge loss.
Alaska’s omnibus criminal justice reform bill, Senate Bill 91, is the culmination of hundreds of hours of donated work by criminal justice professionals, stakeholder citizens, victim advocates, and lawmakers. It embodies data-driven approaches tailored to get the best public safety outcomes from our corrections and criminal justice system.
I have worked in Alaska’s criminal justice system for 35 years and have seen first-hand the need for reform. Every day countless Alaskan lives — victims, offenders, and children of offenders — are irreparably damaged by our failing criminal justice system. Our communities become weakened by a growing population that cannot care for themselves or their children because of the countless barriers that attach upon criminal conviction; by our policies that ignore the underlying causes of criminal behavior and simply warehouse people in our prisons.
I am a person who believes that each and every one of us is solely responsible for our decisions and the consequences thereof. That most certainly includes people who violate our laws. But under our current failed system, there is no such thing as a second chance and we spend the state’s money making criminals out of people who need public health services, giving offenders fewer options besides antisocial ones, and making victims less safe and less likely to ever be made whole.
Senate Bill 91 goes a long way to remedy these failures. It funds programs and supervision strategies that work to reduce recidivism and shifts away from strategies that don’t. It gives practitioners the best tools to measure risk of re-offending and focus their resources on those who need it most. It adopts strategies that have reduced crime and prison populations in other states, like Georgia, South Dakota, Utah, and Texas. It is by any account, the most significant paradigm shift in our approach to criminal justice since statehood. Killing it with a well-intentioned amendment would be demoralizing and quite frankly heart-breaking.
I implore the members of the House of Representatives to please not kill two birds with one reckless amendment.
Carmen Gutierrez is the founder of Alaska Justice Improvement Solutions and the former Deputy Commissioner for the Alaska Department of Corrections.