Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has signed into a law a sweeping reform of his state’s criminal justice system, putting in place a series of techniques fueled by data analytics to cut down on Alaska’s prison population.
Walker put pen to paper on S.B. 91 Monday, clearing the way for the state to start releasing people from prisons as they await trial based on risk assessments and setting in place new standards for sentencing and parole requirements based on data-driven research.
“For the past decade, criminal justice policy has been developed without data or research,” Walker wrote in a statement. “That needed to be changed. S.B. 91 is a reform effort aimed at maximizing the public safety return for each dollar spent.”
Walker estimates the new law’s provisions will reduce the state’s prison population by 13 percent by 2024, requiring an investment of $99 million over six years but saving the state $380 million in the process.
Sen. John Coghill sponsored the legislation, and crafted it with input from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a group of state government leaders, scholars and civil rights advocates. In a study released last December, that group found that Alaska’s prison population grew by 27 percent over the last decade, estimating that the state would have to spend at least $169 million more over the next 10 years to accommodate its inmates if that pace continued unabated.
Accordingly, Coghill’s legislation focused on data and studies suggesting that the state could safely avoid incarcerating people who commit a variety of crimes. Namely, it classifies drug possession a misdemeanor-level offense instead of a felony, and reduces “presumptive sentences” for many other classes of felonies.
Additionally, the new law allows for a new system for pretrial evaluation, giving the state the latitude to avoid holding people before they’re tried if corrections employees determine, based on a variety of data points, that they aren’t likely to pose a threat to their communities. The legislation also expands “discretionary parole,” making more people eligible for release after similar evaluations.
“Reducing our state prison population is vital to making conditions inside the facilities safer, both for prison inmates and correctional officers,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams said in a statement. “S.B. 91 will reduce unnecessary pretrial detention and also strengthen alternatives to prison for those convicted of nonviolent offenses.”
Walker believes other states around the country have successfully implemented similar reforms, pointing to Kentucky, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas as other examples of states saving money and cutting back on recidivism through these sorts of changes.
It’s an effort that also has the support of the Obama administration. Walker’s signing of the legislation comes just two weeks after the White House launched its “Data-Driven Justice” initiative as part of a push to encourage states and localities to embrace similar techniques, though Alaska was not a partner in that program.