Why Alaska Rolled Back Some Criminal Justice Reforms

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In many states, a coalition of conservatives and liberals, concerned about the fiscal and social costs of mass incarceration, decides it’s time to move away from the “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s. They reduce some nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors, offer alternatives to harsh sentencing and offer more rehabilitation to help ex-offenders keep from committing new crimes. Things haven’t played out that way in Alaska, Governing reports. After years of study, Alaska enacted a law in 2016 to revamp sentencing and other criminal justice policies. Within a few months, a majority of legislators decided they’d taken a wrong turn. A vote to repeal the law failed, but the legislature rolled back many of the law’s provisions and ramped up penalties for minor felonies.

Some say the law wasn’t given enough time to work. “Our public just needs to have a little bit of patience,” says Dennis Johnson of Alaska Pretrial Services. “You’re not going to see an instant reduction in recidivism.” State Sen. Mia Costello, a co-sponsor of the law, said it signalled criminals that they could get away with a lot more mischief than before. The knowledge that they wouldn’t receive jail time for shoplifting or thefts below a certain dollar amount was, in Costello’s view, tantamount to a green light. Some people wonder if states can reduce penalties and still reduce crime. Despite statistical successes in many states, it doesn’t take a big crime wave to increase doubts. A few well-publicized crimes can do the trick. In Alaska, violent crime has been trending up since the start of the century and car thefts are rising rapidly. For the first time in a decade, criminal justice reform is facing political headwinds in other states, with partial rollback efforts being discussed in states as different as California and Louisiana.

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