Pew Applauds Alaska Leaders for Comprehensive Public Safety Reform

from Pew Trust

Alaska Governor Bill Walker (I) today signed a comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms legislation, S.B. 91, putting his state at the forefront of research-driven policies designed to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs. The state had projected that its prison population would rise by 27 percent by 2024, but S.B. 91 will instead reduce it by 13 percent over the same period, cutting costs by $380 million and investing $98 million of those savings over the next six years into recidivism-reduction programs, pretrial supervision, violence prevention programs, and victim services.

“With this bill Alaska has raised the bar on putting evidence into practice,” said Adam Gelb, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project. “State leaders enacted a landmark set of policies that establish research-based principles across the system, from pretrial to sentencing to reentry. In a wave of state reforms in more than 30 states over the past decade, Senate Bill 91 stands out as one of the most comprehensive and likely to safely reduce incarceration.”

The new law is based on policy recommendations from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which engaged in a six-month study of the state’s pretrial, sentencing, and corrections practices. With technical assistance from Pew, as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the commission analyzed data, evaluated policies in other states, reviewed research on what works to reduce recidivism, and developed a comprehensive set of recommendations for statutory and budgetary changes.

The commission—a diverse group of criminal justice stakeholders including law enforcement officers; judges; attorneys; Department of Corrections officials; legislators; and representatives of crime victims, Alaska Natives, and the state’s Mental Health Trust Authority—issued a report in December, the findings and policy recommendations of which formed the basis of S.B. 91. The commission found that Alaska’s unified jail and prison population had grown by 27 percent over the past decade, nearly three times faster than the state’s population, and that the state spends over $300 million annually on corrections, up 60 percent over the past two decades.

Despite this growth, the commission determined that Alaskans have not been getting a good public safety return: Nearly 2 in 3 inmates who leave Alaska’s prisons return within three years.

The new law addresses the state’s prison growth and high recidivism rate by:

  • Increasing the number of lower-risk defendants released before trial and creating pretrial supervision.
  • Expanding diversion programs and reducing jail time for misdemeanor offenders.
  • Downgrading drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors while maintaining drug distribution at the felony level but with different penalties for high- versus low-volume offenses.
  • Reducing presumptive sentence ranges for certain felonies.
  • Expanding eligibility for discretionary parole and streamlining parole releases for first-time, nonviolent felony offenders.
  • Requiring the adoption of a sanctions and incentives matrix—standardized guidelines for responding to violations of and rewarding compliance with terms of probation and parole.
  • Capping prison stays for technical violations of probation and parole conditions.
  • Reducing maximum probation terms and providing incentives, such as earned compliance credits and early discharge, to offenders who comply with their supervision conditions.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership between Pew and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, has assisted, in addition to Alaska, more than two dozen states, including Georgia, Oregon, South Dakota, and Utah, with similar data-driven analyses and consensus-based policy recommendations.

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