Brennan: Fixing the crime problem

By Tom Brennan |

Much argument by supporters of the catch-and-release crime law is, to use the nicest possible word, disingenuous.

For instance, take Sen. John Coghill’s claim that reversing SB91 and returning to longer prison sentences wouldn’t affect a criminal’s likelihood of re-offending. Yes, it would — if the criminal was safely locked away in a correctional hoosegow. The likelihood of hurting members of the public while ensconced at Hiland Mountain Prison is very low. Locking them away there protects the public.

Coghill is a Republican and has championed many good causes in his time, but SB91 has not proved to be one of them, at least not yet. The law might have accomplished what was intended if a concerted effort had been made to rehabilitate those released early and get them on the right path instead of returning to lives of crime. But that never happened. The effort never came.

The Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police says the law hasn’t worked and needs major changes. The chiefs, who voiced their opinions in an op-ed article in the Alaska Dispatch News, said an effective rehabilitation and treatment program to serve as an alternative to locking criminals up would cost money. What it would take, they said, is a huge front-end investment to develop policies, processes, infrastructure and manpower sufficient to turn criminals around. The state cut the sentences but never came up with the money to make the law work. You know, budget problems.

Part of the problem has been that the legal system has not had the resources to pursue cases, so, many of them are simply dismissed. In one jurisdiction (the chiefs didn’t say which) 81 percent of 210 arrest cases this year have been dismissed. More than half were dismissed because the importance of the cases were “disproportionate to resources” available to the court system. In other words, pursuing the cases wouldn’t be worth the drain on their budgets or the strain on their people. Statewide, more than 7,000 cases have been dismissed — largely for such reasons — since the law went into effect in July, 2016. No word about how the victims in those cases felt about the offenders being back on the street.

The high rate of dismissals was almost certainly because of budget cuts. Prosecutors didn’t have enough money so they had to toss out many cases because they couldn’t get around to them. They elected instead to go with the best bets on the most important cases they could find time for. That isn’t necessarily the fault of the prosecutors; if they don’t have the manpower and the budget to tackle them all, they have to make choices.

And there is one problem you can’t necessarily blame on budgets. When SB91 was passed, the state’s court system issued a “presiding judge’s bail order.” That order mandated a new bail schedule under which virtually all offenders are released on their own recognizance. Except for a short list of exceptions, that means the offenders don’t have to put up any bail money; they are just turned loose until court time. And that applies no matter how many times the hood is busted. First-time offender or frequent flier, everybody gets catch and release.

And what happens if the offender doesn’t show up for a scheduled court appearance? Same treatment. The judge chews the offender out and sets a new court date.

As anybody who follows the news or looks at social media can tell, crime is on an upswing. That is being attributed to the spreading opioid crisis and that could well be the cause, but the state’s catch and release program is hurting, not helping.

Going back to the old system would take about $4 million in added prison costs. That could help protect the public and might be a good investment. Providing enough money to pay for an effective rehabilitation program would require millions more, but that could be a good investment too.

Where will the state find all that money? Actually you could take it out of the small-change drawer of the Earnings Reserve Account. On June 30 its balance was $12.8 billion and the Permanent Fund recently announced it was about to deposit another $4.4 billion from its latest realized earnings. The state will need $2.8 billion to cover its deficit and recently spent $700 million from that account to pay citizen dividends. Allocating enough to protect the public from our criminal element would be another good use of the money.

It’s time to put up or you know what.

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