Public Safety Officials Have Positive Report For Legislators

Frontiersman — Crime in Alaska continued its dismal upswing in 2017, state public safety officials told legislators in Juneau Feb. 5, but an encouraging new development is that fewer released offenders, for more serious crimes, are having to be returned to prison.

A sharp decline in “recidivism,” or going back behind bars for new crimes, is one positive result of Senate Bill 91, a controversial criminal justice reform law passed by the Legislature in 2016. Many Alaskans have blamed the new law, which relaxed certain penalties for low-level crimes, with a surge in crime.

The recidivism rate of released offenders, however, has dropped from 67 percent to 61 percent over the last three years, state corrections officials said in a briefing.

When minor violations of parole or probation causing reincarceration are excluded from the data the rate of imprisonment, because of new crimes committed by released offenders, follows a similar trend, from 38.5 percent to 32.38 percent over three years, officials said.

“We may have gotten at least something right with SB 21,” said Rep. Tammy Wilson, R-North Pole. Wilson was among several members of the House listening to the presentation, which was.

Among other things, public safety officials credited a $2 million grant to increase drug abuse and other behavioral health treatment that came with SB 21 along with a new emphasis on “evidence-based” rehabilitation, in programs grounded with data showing they work, as well as “re-entry” counseling that starts early and partnerships with community groups offering housing and job-search support for released inmates.

Reducing the rate at which former prisoners go back to jail is critical to reducing prisoner populations and reducing high cost of running prisons and jails along with helping released inmates rebuild their lives and become productive citizens.

Despite the good news with recidivism, the overall crime picture still isn’t pretty. Crime rose in almost all categories in 2017, according to data from the annual Uniform Crime Reporting system, a nationwide data base that includes information on Alaska.

Data for 2018 won’t be available until early fall, the legislators were told.

For violent crimes in 2017, murders totaled 62 and rose 19 percent over 2016; robberies totaled 949, up 12 percent; assaults reached 4,239, increasing 6.5 percent, and rapes totaled 1,073, rising 2.6 percent.

For property crimes, vehicle thefts rose 39.8 percent from 2016, for the total of 4,250; burglaries totaled 4,153, a 3.2 percent increase; larceny and theft incidents reached 17,683, up 0.3 percent, and arsons totaled 1,389 dropping 3.2 percent.

Although the trend was up in 2017 the longer-term trend since 2015 for property crime like burglary, larceny and theft has been relatively stable. Vehicle theft was the only category to show a sharp increase since 2015.

Tammie Wilson, a conservative lawmaker from North Pole, near Fairbanks, said the trends show no apparent correlation with the Legislature’s passage of SB 21 in 2016. “It’s obvious that the rise of crime pre-dates the passage of SB 91,” she said.

Also, the leveling of property crimes except for car thefts between 2015 and 2017 seemed to contradict the argument that the new law provided incentives for new criminal activity.

“We already had an issue (with crime) before SB 91. Where’s the analysis connecting the two?” Wilson asked. “We’ve all heard that SB 91 is the sole problem, but what I see is that we had an issue even before,” the controversial law passed, she said.

Wilson asked public safety commissioner Amanda Price if she could show any correlation between the controversial law and the crime data. Price said they her department has not analyzed the data in a way that could tie it to the legislation.

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anch., another legislator in the meeting, said the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Justice and Accountability is gathering data on long-term trends and may be able to show correlations between SB 21 and crime rates.

Claman, who was chair of the House Judiciary Committee last year, said the Alaska crime data does show a long-term correlation to data on deaths due to drug overdoses. This shows an apparent connection between higher drug use – opioids leading to heroin – and criminal activity likely intended to help support addicts’ drug habits. Claman is also a member, and chairman this year, of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission.

Wilson said getting the 2018 data on crime trends is important to considering new legislation that is being proposed for the 2019 session, but the new data won’t be available until August.

Not surprisingly, arrests for possession of drugs along with sales and manufacture of controlled substances have dropped since marijuana possession was decriminalized in 2015, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting data . The information reflects arrests for drugs other than marijuana that are still illegal.