Monday kicked off the fourth special session and legislators are already waist-deep into the criminal justice portion of Gov. Bill Walker’s agenda.
The House Majority is delivering on its rumored plans to fast-track Senate Bill 54 to clear the slate for the other part of the special session call, new revenue. On Monday, the majority cleared one committee assignment—for state affairs—from Senate Bill 54, and the House Judiciary Committee spent the afternoon and evening reviewing the bill.
What was clear out of the first day is that not a single expert on criminal justice—or really even any of the legislators—has a convincing case that Senate Bill 91 is a driving factor in the rise in crime.
In a joint meeting between the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan described Alaska’s rise in crime as a “perfect storm” of multiple different factors, including state and local budget cuts.
“The crime rate was rising long before Senate Bill 91. Again, it was in part because of the opioids as well as the reduction not only in the state troopers, but a major factor was a reduction in the Anchorage Police Department as well,” he said. “The state and the state’s largest police department both saw reductions and what happens normally when you see a loss of troopers and police officers is that you have a tendency to do the higher priority crimes where people crimes will always trump property crimes. Some of the problems in the property crimes are not being adequately addressed or timely addressed because there were disturbances or robberies.”
The research also supports Monegan’s assessment. Last week, the UAA Justice Center released an analysis of crime rates in Anchorage and found that it’s simply too early to connect the two.
“Definitive conclusions about the impact of SB91 on current Anchorage property crime rates are not possible given that 2016 data (the most recent data available) cover less than six months following the implementation of the first phase of the law,” explained the article by interim Justice Center Director Brad Myrstol. “What the data presented do show is that rate of property crime was increasing for years prior to the passage of SB91.”
It still, unsurprisingly, hasn’t stopped the Republican House Minority, which is home to the staunchest opponents of SB 91 (though one of those House members can’t be bothered to be in Juneau right now), from making grand promises about just what can be done to address crime through legislation.
“This is a huge issue and I know your caucus wants to get to the fiscal issues. This is just as important,” said Rep. Charisse Millett in opposing the change of SB 54 committee assignments. “People are getting robbed, their houses are getting broken into, cars are getting stolen, lives are being disrupted and we have the opportunity within Senate Bill 54 to fix some of the things we’ve been hearing in our districts.”
The whole opposition mounted by the Republican House Minority paints a picture where crime and its fundamental drivers are something that can be legislated away. If only it were that easy.
Legislators are right to demand answers and push for solutions to crime, but they should be honest with the public and with themselves about their cost and efficacy. Increasing penalties and jail time will come at an increased cost to the state, increasing the number of officers and prosecutors will come at a cost and instituting the treatment and reforms that SB 91 relies on will come at a cost.
“Talk is cheap,” said Sen. Berta Gardner on the Senate floor. “Funding public health and public safety is not.”
It was a refrain that was echoed throughout the building, whether on the floor or in committee, on Monday.
“A lot of you are aware that the epidemic of crime in Alaska is statewide,” said Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau. “It has a number of drives, amongst which are unemployment, drug addiction and the enormous cuts which have been inflicted upon public safety. … It strikes me as remarkably naive to pretend that that’s not a factor. To pretend that the state prosecutors who we’ve laid off, to pretend that the thousands of cases which have not been prosecuted because they’re short-staffed and underfunded are not a factor in this discussion.”
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, has long been an under-the-radar supporter of increased substance abuse treatment and he staked out a conservative approach to criminal justice that also linked it to the state’s budget and economy.
“We could all the criminal reform bills we want,” he said. “We could double the amount of time that we send people to prison and we’re going to have a whole lot more people in prison and a whole lot more cost to the state, but unless we address the economy I don’t see where any of this is going to matter.”
That pesky constitution
What’s not likely to be a serious solution is Sen. Peter Micciche’s novel idea for tackling the influx of drugs. We’ll let the exchange speak for itself. (Update: Which he later clarified was about using drug-sniffing dogs at state-run airports).
“Getting back to the interruption of flow into the state,” he asked. “Many of the states that are seeing the increases have multiple highways, they’re bordering multiple states, there’s a lot of ways into the state. We are one state off by itself, we have a common border with Canada. It comes in by air, it comes in by ferry. Is the constitution in the way? … Is privacy, in this case, a problem?”
“We certainly want to take efforts to interrupt the flow into the state,” said John Skidmore, the head of the Department of Law’s criminal division, outlining some of the in-progress efforts on that front. “First and foremost I’m a lawyer and citizen of the country and I don’t ever think the constitution is in the way. The constitution sets forth the primary principles and values by which we all want to live. Does privacy prevent us from stopping every single person coming into the state and searching their bags? Yes, it does stop us from doing that, but I’ll tell you that isn’t the state or the country that I want to live in and I don’t think many people out there would.”