Alaska lawmakers are trying to fight crime by toughening prison sentences. Not everyone agrees that will work.

Alaska lawmakers say that they’re getting tough on crime with a new bill to lengthen prison sentences.

The legislation, House Bill 49, is under debate as the Legislature nears the end of its annual session. It would reverse many of the pieces of Senate Bill 91 – the 2016 legislation that many Alaskans blame for a spike in crime.

But the new bill comes with a big price tag, and not everyone agrees that it will drive crime rates back down – including Doug Elkins, a convicted felon who was released from prison last month.

In an interview at Partners for Progress, an Anchorage organization that helps released prisoners “re-enter” society, Elkins said he’s been cycling in and out of prison since the 1970s. He’s working on getting clean and went to a drug treatment program in prison, he said.

Doug Elkins, 62, says he just finished a 20-month prison sentence, which is estimated by the state to cost $100,000. He said he got high immediately after leaving jail. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

But his sentence didn’t solve his problems, he said. Others who work with released prisoners like Elkins said that enhancing access to programs for mental health treatment and drug addiction would do more to reduce crime than boosting sentences.

“For 20 months, I sat in jail not wanting to do nothing but get high. And then, once I got out that’s exactly what I did: I went and got high,” said Elkins, 62, in an interview. “Going to jail, all that’s going to do is remove you from the situation for a minute.”

A 20-month term, like the one Elkins said he served, costs Alaska $100,000, according to state figures that place the daily cost of a prison bed at $169.

Reducing imprisonment for nonviolent criminals was policymakers’ goal in 2016 when they passed SB 91, a major restructuring of Alaska’s criminal justice laws. The idea, supported by both in-state and out-of-state research, was that longer prison sentences aren’t shown to keep prisoners from committing more crimes once they get out.

So SB 91 reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes and budgeted some of the savings to boost drug treatment, as well as programs to help people transition from prison back to regular life. Almost immediately, the changes faced a backlash. Gov. Mike Dunleavy ran on undoing the legislation.

“To the criminals, and to the rapists and molesters who see our children as nothing more than opportunities, I say this to you: We will do everything in our power to stop you, apprehend you and put you in prison for a very long time,” Dunleavy said at his State of the State speech earlier this year, when he pledged to repeal and replace SB 91.

Critics of the law, like Dunleavy, have tied it to a spike in crime in Alaska.

It’s true that both violent and nonviolent crimes have risen sharply in recent years. But that trend started before SB 91 took effect, and there’s no research that definitively links the two.

Supporters of the repeal cite research that’s shown higher incarceration rates to have significant effects on crime rates.

Anchorage District Attorney John Novak said he rejects that idea that SB 91 just happened to coincide with a crime wave driven by other factors.

He said he and his colleagues in law enforcement feel like SB 91 deprived them of the tools they need to make Alaska safe – particularly when it comes to provisions that made it easier for defendants to get out on bail before trial.

“We’re all frustrated. We’re in this business to try to make our community safer, and it’s a very uncomfortable discussion when we interact with our neighbors and our friends and our community members and they look at us, like, ‘What are you doing?’” Novak said in an interview. “I don’t know how many more murders and auto thefts and whatnot we need to show that it doesn’t work.”

John Novak is Anchorage’s district attorney. He says that by loosening bail requirements and reducing prison sentences, Senate Bill 91, the 2016 criminal justice legislation, made it harder for law enforcement to keep Alaskans safe. (Photo by Nat Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Novak said he disagrees with the premise that it makes sense to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent criminals; prosecutors have cited federal data that showed a significant number of people imprisoned for drug crimes to be later arrested on charges of violent crimes.

Novak said some people will object to his position as supporting “mass incarceration.”

“Putting people behind bars for doing crimes of violence, pointing guns at people, stabbing people, assaulting people, putting people in the hospital – I would submit that that’s a good thing,” he said. “Particularly if they’re in their prime time crime time years, their twenties.”

Before this year, lawmakers had already repealed many elements of SB 91, including in a 2017 special session called by former Gov. Bill Walker – before all of SB 91’s provisions had even taken effect. A new Department of Corrections unit created by SB 91 to supervise defendants released on bail before trial, for example, didn’t take effect until the start of 2018.

Now, near the end of this year’s legislative session, HB 49 would reverse more provisions of SB 91, including by lengthening prison terms. One element under consideration would make second-time drug possession a felony. Altogether, the legislation could cost the state tens of millions of dollars a year and force the reopening of a shuttered prison in Palmer, according to the Dunleavy administration.

Eva Gregg, a recovering alcoholic who was volunteering at the Anchorage re-entry center last week, said that boosting prison sentences comes with a social cost, too.

Addressing state lawmakers, she said: “I’d really ask them: If you were the alcoholic and if you were the addict, is that where you would want to be sent because of the things you’re doing to support your alcoholism, your drug addiction?”

“Have some empathy,” added Gregg, 52.

Eva Gregg, 52, volunteers at Partners for Progress’ re-entry center in downtown Anchorage. She says lawmakers considering tough-on-crime measures should think about where they’d want to be sent if they were caught committing crimes to support a drug or alcohol addiction.

Cathleen McLaughlin, who runs the re-entry center, said she’s worried about lawmakers throwing out parts of SB 91 that she thinks have been working – like boosting support for programs outside of prison, like hers.

McLaughlin said the big failure of the legislation was not in reducing sentences, but in not doing even more to ease released prisoners’ access to speedy treatment for mental health problems or drug addictions.

“We have to acknowledge that we have not lived up to that promise of SB 91,” McLaughlin said. “We refer people all the time to get assessments and treatment – they’re never timely.”

McLaughlin said some of her center’s clients have severe mental health problems.

And until they’re stabilized, she added, it’s likely they’ll go on to commit more crimes – tougher sentences or not.

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