JUNEAU, Alaska (CN) — Alaska Gov. Bill Walker signed a historic reform of Alaska’s criminal justice system on Monday that is projected to reduce the prison population by 13 percent by 2024 and save the state $380 million.
Senate Bill 91 advances data-driven, research-based policies to reduce recidivism, enhance public safety and curb corrections spending, according a statement from Walker’s office. The state plans to reinvest $99 million over the next six years into criminal justice programs.
Funding will come from a portion of the bill’s projected savings and half of the state’s anticipated tax revenue from the legal sale of marijuana. The money will go toward prison and community treatment services, reentry support for offenders returning home from prison, pretrial services and supervision, violence prevention programming, and crime victims’ services.
“Today we’re making transformative changes to our criminal justice system,” Walker said. “With SB 91, we’re dropping the practices that we know don’t work to keep communities safe, and expanding the practices that do.”
Alaska has the highest rate of violent crime per capita, and one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. According to an Alaska Senate factsheet on the bill, “nearly two out of every three inmates who leave prison return within three years.”
The governor also addressed this issue and the bill in an opinion piece published in Alaska Dispatch News in conjunction with the bill’s signing. In it, he reiterated the bill’s strong bipartisan support and the seven months a 13-member state criminal justice commission spent gathering and reviewing data that informed the recommendations leading to the bill.
“I’m proud to join legislative leaders in adopting this reform package. It reflects a broad consensus among stakeholders and practitioners in Alaska on how to get the most public safety out of the dollars we spend,” Walker said.
The legislation was sponsored by state Sen. John Coghill, a Republican from North Pole in Interior Alaska, and by state Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat from Anchorage.
“We knew investing in treatment and victims’ services was critical,” Coghill said in a statement.
He added, “SB 91 averts millions in future spending to allow for that reinvestment. This was an enormous achievement that will reduce recidivism, hold offenders accountable, and get the most public safety out of each dollar spent on our criminal justice system.”
The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission found that the state’s prison population grew by 27 percent, or nearly three times faster than the state’s resident population, over the past decade. The commission also found that corrections spending went up 60 percent in the past 20 years to over $300 million annually.
“This reform package follows the best research in the field and the best practices around the country,” Greg Razo, chairman of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, said in a statement.
“Today Alaska is making an historic investment into treatment and programming for those in our criminal justice system, and services for victims of crime. I’m very proud of our work on the commission, and applaud the courage and conviction of our Legislature and governor.”
Walker also introduced a bill to repeal sections of SB 91 that sex-trafficking victims’ advocates are concerned could potentially create a loophole affecting the state’s ability to prosecute sex traffickers.
Walker thanked members of Priceless Ministry in his opinion piece for “their attentive review of the bill” in drawing his attention to two sections of concern in the bill.
“The fix is simple,” Walker said. “I amended my special session call to add a standalone bill repealing the specific language that could potentially hinder the prosecution of sex traffickers.”
Targeting only the specific language will allow lawmakers to close the loophole without unraveling “all the important reform efforts in SB 91,” Walker said.
“Each recommendation was rooted in research, and most were modeled after successful policies in other states,” Walker wrote. “The bill was vetted through more than 50 hearings in five legislative committees. It passed with two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate.”
Walker pointed to similar reforms working in South Carolina, Kentucky, South Dakota and Texas.
“All of these states reduced their prison populations and reinvested in crime-reduction strategies,” he said. According to his op-ed, Texas stopped building more prisons, cut $3 billion in prison costs, and crime has declined to the lowest level since 1968.
The state received technical assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership between Pew and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.
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