The United States locks up more or its people than any other nation.

Alaska is no different. Critics of reform don’t want us to remember that in the decade prior to reform (2005-2014) our justice system was horribly broken. In that decade “tough on crime” policies caused Alaska’s prison population to skyrocket, growing three times faster than our resident population, produced a dangerously high 67% recidivism rate, and exhibited structural racial bias that imprisoned Alaska Native men at three times the rate of Caucasian men.

The system had become bloated, financially unsustainable, racially biased, and was making us less safe.

It was against this backdrop that reform was passed in 2016.  The primary reform bill, Senate Bill 91, was a good start, but it had flaws that law enforcement professionals, civil libertarians, Alaska Native groups, and members of the community came together to fix in late 2017 with Senate Bill 54.

Now Alaska has a criminal justice system that is fairer, more sustainable, better structured to protect the public, and invests in programs proven to prevent crime and lower the likelihood of prisoners committing more crimes after being released from prison. It also enacts tougher penalties on violent crimes, strengthens community supervision of those on probation and parole, and will responsibly reduce Alaska’s inmate population, saving the state of Alaska $380 million over the next 10 years.

These reforms have only been fully in place for a few months, but are already paying dividends.  As Sen. Cathy Giessel noted in her May newsletter, “In the last 4 months, re-offenses by low risk folks who are supervised has dropped from 40% to less than 5%.”

Smart Justice Alaska is a statewide advocacy platform created by the ACLU of Alaska to organize Alaskans in support of Alaska’s criminal justice reforms that:

Reduce Recidivism and the Number of Crime Victims

  • Strengthened community supervision of those on probation and parole.
  • Expanded eligibility for parole to those with a record of good behavior who present minimal risk to the community.
  • Expanded Crime-reduction programs like violence prevention and substance abuse treatment.
  • Established an oversight committee and mandatory data collection and reporting requirements to ensure the law is working as intended.
  • Kept drug possession a misdemeanor offense, but maintain stiffer penalties for drug dealing and distribution.

Protect Provisions That Support Crime Victims

  • Required prosecuting attorneys to confer with victims in felony and domestic violence cases before entering into plea agreements.
  • Prohibited law enforcement from disclosing to employers. information about sexual assault reports and investigations, and prohibit employer retaliation against workers for making these reports.
  • Authorized the Parole Board to require perpetrators of domestic violence to participate in rehabilitative programming as a condition of parole.
  • Required victims be notified of the dates of expected release from incarceration and expected discharge from supervision, and provide victims with opportunities to request information and offer input.

Prior to SB 91, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission hosted round tables around the state with crime victims, survivors, advocates, community- and system-based victims’ service providers, and justice professionals to identify priorities for improving victim safety, services, and support in Alaska. The top two priorities that emerged from these discussions were strengthening victim-assistance services in remote areas and expanding programs focusing on crime prevention and bystander intervention. As a result, the legislature included many of these victim support suggestions in SB 91. They need to be protected and expanded.

Reduce or Eliminate Racial Bias

  • Currently Alaska Natives are three times more likely to be incarcerated in Alaska than the rest of the population.
  • Nationally, the imprisonment rate for African-American men is six times that of white men.
  • The State of Alaska regularly fails to return rural residents to their place of arrest after incarceration, as they are legally required to do, leaving them in urban hubs where they have no support.

Racial bias, both implicit and explicit, keeps more people of color in prisons and on probation than ever before. The effect of the War on Drugs on communities of color has been tragic. At no other point in U.S. history have so many people—disproportionately people of color—been deprived of their liberty.

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