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Alaska Passed Sweeping Criminal Justice Reforms. Its New Governor Just Unraveled Them.

Republican Mike Dunleavy was elected on a platform to ‘Make Alaska Safe Again’ and has rolled back recent changes.

Image of mountains and fishing boats
Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow.

The ad begins with a middle-aged white woman with reddish-brown hair sitting in her living room. She describes a frightening scene: As she headed out of her home, she opened the garage door to an intruder rushing toward her. Panicked, she dialed 911 and sprinted out a different door in terror. The intruder chased her down the street. But when the police came, they said they couldn’t arrest him. “And I asked the police officer, ‘Is this because of Senate Bill 91?’ and she said, ‘Yes, it is. We don’t take people to jail for this.’” 

“Carol” was part of an ominous political ad that attacked Senate Bill 91, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill in Alaska signed in 2016 by then Governor Bill Walker—and to promote Republican state Senator Mike Dunleavy as a tough-on-crime replacement.

“Mike Dunleavy voted against the ‘catch and release’ crime bill,” the ad explained. “It passed anyway.” Viewed over 13,000 times on the Alaska Republican Party’s Facebook page, the ad aired during the final weeks of the competitive 2018 midterm elections, where Walker—the incumbent, an independent—had just dropped out of the race for governor, leaving Dunleavy and a Democrat, Mark Begich, fighting for the seat. 

Dunleavy, whose Trumpian campaign slogan was “Make Alaska Safe Again,” would go on to win the race in November. And since then, he has made good on his promise to reverse criminal justice reform. He has pushed for the repeal of SB 91 and the passage of a new crime bill he signed this week that, among other things, makes simple drug possession an arrestable offense and adds years of sentencing on to various crimes that reforms had previously reduced. 

In a statement, the ACLU of Alaska called the new law “bad policy” and a “direct attack on Alaska’s working poor.” The law “returns Alaska to broken criminal justice policies that failed to reduce crime or keep Alaskans safe,” the group wrote.

A spokesperson for the governor declined to address questions raised by critics of the bill. “The Governor has offered extensive comments on his efforts to improve public safety in Alaska,” Matt Shuckerow, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said in an email, noting that Dunleavy had called it “priority number one” during his run for governor.

But Dunleavy’s critics say the fate of Alaska’s once promising reforms show how easily such wins can be undone. 

“The state of Alaska’s response to SB 91 over the last three years should be a warning for other states,” said state Representative Ivy Spohnholz, a Democrat who supported the reforms. “They should be looking to learn from our experience.”

Bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined, Alaska’s remote and rugged topography creates unique obstacles for tackling social problems. With much of Alaska inaccessible by paved roads, it can take hours, even days, for a 911 call to be fielded. Late last month, after visiting Alaska, U.S. Attorney General William Barr declared a law enforcement emergency, freeing up $10.5 million for the state to hire and train more troopers and village public safety officers in remote villages and Native communities, to serve as first responders before a trooper arrives. 

Between 2006 and 2016, Alaska’s reported rape rate was the highest in the country every year but one. The sexual assault rate is nearly three times the national average. Though Alaska’s Native residents represent 15 percent of the state’s population, they comprise more than half of all sexual assault victims. And like other states, Alaska is experiencing a spike in alcohol-related deaths, overdose deaths, and suicides, known collectively as “deaths of despair.” 

Many Alaska residents live in isolated villages at high altitudes, far away from the treatment and health services they need. And the state has struggled with budget deficits created by plummeting oil prices, leaving legislators scrambling for funds. 

So, five years ago, policymakers set their sights on the corrections budget. To study Alaska’s correctional system, the legislature created the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a partnership between government officials, experts, academics, and the Pew Charitable Trusts Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Months of research revealed an expensive and ineffective system in need of repair. 

Between 2005 and 2014, Alaska’s incarcerated population had increased by 27 percent, nearly three times faster than the resident population, according to a 2016 Pew report that summarized some of the commission’s findings. Steep growth in incarceration led to the 2012 opening of Goose Creek Correctional Center, a prison that cost the state $240 million to build, in addition to the Department of Corrections’s $300 million annual budget, which had increased 60 percent over a 20-year span. 

Months of research revealed an expensive and ineffective system in need of repair. 

The commission found that jails and prisons were clogged with people detained pretrial who could not afford bail. Others were held on minor infractions, such as technical violations of probation or parole conditions. 

“The traditional approach to criminal justice had resulted in an ever-growing prison population and not necessarily a reduction in criminal behavior,” said Jeff Jessee, dean of the University of Alaska’s College of Health, who was tapped to work on the commission. “You could draw trend lines and start identifying when the state would have to build another prison in order to meet the increasing incarceration numbers. That seemed unacceptable from a financial and a societal standpoint.”

The commission’s painstaking research led to 21 recommendations, including a new pretrial release system, limiting the use of cash bail, and expanding police officers’ discretion to issue citations instead of making arrests for lower-level crimes. (The latter recommendation was alluded to in the ad featuring Carol, which implied that burglars were given a free pass under the reforms.) 

Legislators wrapped most of the commission’s proposals into an expansive piece of reform legislation: Senate Bill 91. Among other things, it would reduce jail time as a penalty for nonviolent and petty crimes, cut correctional costs, and reduce almost all drug possession charges to Class A misdemeanors from felonies.  

Jails and prisons cannot be the go-to place for treating addiction.

Terria Walters advocate

Terria Walters was one of several formerly incarcerated people who helped push for the bill. In 2007, Walters was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with eight years suspended, on charges stemming from cooking personal amounts of meth inside a converted bus parked in rural Big Lake, Alaska. Her son, Christopher Seaman, then 13, was inside the bus during the raid and was placed in state custody, perpetuating a family cycle of foster care and institutionalization. 

After completing 26 months of addiction treatment inside Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, Walters applied for parole in 2009 and was released in May 2010. After her release, Walters dedicated herself to advocating for less punitive drug laws, calling for treatment rather than incarceration. “Jails and prisons cannot be the go-to place for treating addiction, which is rampant in Alaska,” Walters told The Appeal. “People leave with more trauma than when they came in.”

In 2015, after her son was murdered in a likely drug deal gone wrong, she also became an advocate for restorative justice. She recently participated in Alaska’s first victim-offender dialogue program, where she confronted the man who shot and killed her son. 

In July 2016, SB 91 passed after more than 50 legislative hearings. Proponents said it would reduce recidivism rates and the total number of incarcerated Alaskans, and save roughly $380 million in spending on corrections by 2024. Savings would be invested into mental health and treatment, as well as other re-entry services, such as job training for people with convictions on their records.  

Some changes were immediate. The same month SB 91 passed, the  Department of Corrections shut down the 500-bed Palmer prison, which had a budget of $10.6 million, despite opposition from the Alaska Correctional Officers Association, a union. A 2018 analysis by the commission also showed a 4.8 percent drop in the state’s prison population after some of the reforms went into effect, and revealed a 27 percent reduction of people in prison for nonviolent misdemeanors from 2016 to 2017. 

Though some local officials celebrated those gains, Dunleavy publicly described the reforms as a threat to public safety, and vowed to wage a “war on criminals.” While campaigning for governor, he erroneously blamed a spate of property crimes and vehicle thefts on the new reforms, and called Alaska “the most dangerous state in the U.S.” 

Anchorage District Attorney John Novak echoed those concerns, telling news outlets that he and his law enforcement colleagues were frustrated by SB 91, particularly its changes to the bail system. “I don’t know how many more murders and auto thefts and whatnot we need to show that it doesn’t work,” he said.

For advocates, the critique felt misplaced. “Criminal justice reform was blamed for everything,” said Carrie Amott, who graduated in 2016 from Juneau Therapeutic Court, an alternative-to-incarceration program, after receiving a felony DUI. After seeing how leniency in the system helped her own recovery, she became an advocate for reform in Juneau, Alaska’s capital. “Cost of living is increasing. People here are struggling to make ends meet. But you can’t correlate all that with the reforms,” the 34-year-old told The Appeal.  

A 2017 report from the Alaska Justice Forum at the University of Alaska Anchorage backs her up. It shows that property crime was increasing for years before the 2016 reform, and that crime rates for shoplifting, car theft, and burglary were “neither the highest nor lowest over the last 30 years.”

But the perception that all manner of crimes were increasing after reforms were passed took hold among the public, and stories of how reform helped people like Amott were drowned out. “I benefited from SB 91,” she said. “I’ve gotten my license back and I’ve been able to maintain a job. I’m able to get back and forth from the bank and the grocery store. I was able to do what normal people do.” Amott did have one criticism of the legislation: The promised investment in treatment and re-entry services did not materialize fast enough. 

Dunleavy’s crime bill ratchets up sentences that SB 91 previously reduced.

But that sort of nuance has been lost in the push to end the reforms. “One major event occurred as the rate of crime began to rise—the passage of Senate Bill 91,” Dunleavy wrote in a letter to the legislature proposing a new crime bill, House Bill 49. “SB 91 has contributed to the loss of public trust in our criminal justice system and our ability to keep Alaskans safe.” 

Dunleavy’s crime bill ratchets up sentences that SB 91 previously reduced, for crimes such as drug possession and sale. It would likely necessitate the reopening of Palmer prison. 

Members of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission interviewed by The Appeal said the new crime bill runs counter to the evidence that drove their recommendations. “The commission’s research found that there is very little deterrent value to prison sentences for simple drug possession,” said Barbara Dunham, project attorney for the commission. “It also found that for some low-level, first time offenders—such as those charged with simple possession—incarceration can actually make them more likely to recidivate.”

On a mission to balance the budget, Governor Dunleavy slashed programs that promote public health and safety. The same day the federal government declared an emergency and directed funds into the Village Public Safety Officer program, Dunleavy cut it by $3 million; funding for homelessness assistance programs was reduced to $2.6 million from $13.7 million; Medicaid, which often pays for addiction treatment, was cut by $58 million. 

“Even if the governor believes we need to have a tough-on-crime approach in Alaska, his cuts are running contrary to that,” Representative Spohnholz said. “The governor has said his intent is to make Alaska safer, but his actions and policies are making us less safe.”