Reality Check: SB 91 puts budget cuts before public safety
There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days over SB 91. Let’s take a look back at what the reform bill was supposedly all about.
When it was passed in 2016, it was hailed as a paradigm shift for the criminal justice system. A way to cut jail overcrowding and stop the revolving door of recidivism. It was also promoted as a way to save tens of millions of dollars by keeping non-violent offenders out of jail.
As legitimate as the goals of SB 91 were, there’s little doubt that many in Juneau also saw it as a good way to cut the budget. In a sideways nod to Chilkoot Charlie, they took the savings and passed the bill on to us. And now communities are paying the price.
When SB 91 eliminated jail time for minor felonies and issued citations to shoplifters, was it any surprise that petty thieves saw SB 91 as the ultimate get out of jail card?
Yes, it is cheaper to keep small-time criminals out of jail versus spending a couple hundred dollars a day to incarcerate them. But small-time criminals become big-time criminals without consequences.
First of all, it’s easy to stop the revolving door of recidivism if you cut the bad guys loose before they ever get to the door.
To be fair, the Department of Corrections is trying to hire dozens of pre-trial officers to keep track of felony suspects before their trial -- which can now take months. Until they are in place, however, we can expect to see more examples of suspects out on bail, carrying on where they left off.
Secondly, if the plan depends on putting so many drug-addicted offenders into treatment, you need to fully fund the programs and have them in place for the plan to work. And that didn’t happen.
Now the finger-pointing is in full bloom with some lawmakers saying they couldn’t foresee the consequences, though they were warned by law enforcement officials at the time, it was dangerous to balance the public’s safety with their fervor to cut the budget. One is even blaming the Governor for signing the bill they put in front of him.
Seriously -- here’s your Reality Check. There is no doubt some good ideas are to be found in SB 91, but not if you only implement the parts that save money and not those that cost money.
In other words, a fully funded SB 91 might be smart. But a rush to pass reform before all the pieces are in place was a dumb way to save money.
John’s opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.