As the legislative session draws to a close, there is one issue that has seen remarkably little activity -- crime. I’m working to change that.
I’ve been hearing from my constituents that the new crime bill, Senate Bill 91, wasn’t keeping them safe. Worse, it sends the message to criminals that they would not be punished. So last year, I proposed a repeal bill so we can start over.
My bill wasn’t immediately popular with my colleagues, many of whom supported Senate Bill 91 -- like I did -- but weren’t ready to admit we need to start over.
In March, I launched an online survey for ten days to find out how my constituents felt about crime and Senate Bill 91. Over 4,500 responses poured in from all over the state. Alaskans were speaking, and there was no mistaking their message -- over 80 percent called for the repeal of Senate Bill 91. Almost 85 percent had been, or knew someone who had been, a crime victim. And nearly a thousand people shared their personal crime stories with me.
It took dusting off a Senate rule that hadn’t been used in thirty years to ultimately force the bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But we fared better in the Senate Finance Committee, where the bill had a hearing where public testimony was taken. For three hours, the Senate Finance Committee heard from Alaskans from all over the state, telling their stories of how Alaska’s crime wave has affected them.
Crime victims said they are frustrated with the current system and want to feel safe again. One young women testified that she was held at gunpoint at her place of employment and has since quit her job.
Having a hearing where Alaskans finally had their say was a start, but it may be as far as a full repeal gets this year. Even if my bill makes it to the Senate floor, it would still have to go through the House committee process. But I’m not giving up, and I’m going to keep working to fix the problems caused by Senate Bill 91.
There are still meaningful changes that can be accomplished this year to make Alaskans safer -- and one must-have is to fix our broken “catch-and-release” pretrial system instituted by Senate Bill 91.
A pretrial risk assessment tool is intended to assist judicial officers with decisions by measuring the risk a defendant will fail to appear in court or commit a new crime while released. But our tool ties the hands of our judges. If the tool says that a person should be released, they must be released, even if the judge disagrees. Seven other states use a pretrial tool, but no other state ties judges’ hands the way we do.
Alaska’s pretrial risk assessment tool can only be as good as the factors it considers, but it skips a lot of things that other jurisdictions use. Other states consider factors like substance abuse, residency, employment status, level of education, and mental health. Alaska doesn’t consider any of those things. In fact, we didn’t even check if any of those factors matter.
Consider the recent headline about a man who was arrested last Wednesday. He was previously arrested last December for car theft, then failed to appear for his court date. Then on Wednesday, he was arrested again while driving another stolen vehicle. Trying to evade police, he allegedly caused a pile-up accident with four other vehicles, injuring four people and his passenger. He was charged with seven class C felonies and five misdemeanors -- and released that same day without having to put up a dime of bail.
Unfortunately, this is all too common. Our risk assessment tool isn’t keeping Alaskans safe. We need to return discretion to our judges, so that they can make the safest decision when the tool proposes that a dangerous person be released.
I’m hopeful we can make that change, and I’m working build support for a solution that can pass this session. Alaskans are pleading with us to craft a criminal justice system that keeps us safe.
We need to listen to them.
Mia Costello represents West Anchorage in the Alaska State Senate. She is a lifelong Alaskan, mother, and sponsor of Senate Bill 127, a bill to repeal Senate Bill 91.