An interesting thing happened when I visited the drive thru of a local fast food joint in Wasilla recently.
After paying for my food at the drive-thru, I was directed to pull into the parking lot to wait for my food. It was early on a Saturday morning, and there was no one else in line at the drive-thru, so I asked why.
The drive-thru attendant sheepishly explained that it is their policy to ask everyone to wait in the parking lot because the owner gets an automatic report on how long it takes to serve customers going through the drive-thru, and if customers wait in the parking lot it makes their drive-thru wait times look really good. I decided to wait in the drive-thru.
Passing by the same fast food joint shortly after that, the drive-thru was again empty, and there were about a half dozen cars waiting in the parking lot. But the numbers the owner was getting were really good, and those driving by saw an empty drive-thru promising a short wait. The numbers were low. They just no longer had any connection to reality.
Well, it turns out the State of Alaska has been doing something similar with crime statistics since SB91 was passed in 2016.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which today is controlled by ardent supporters of SB91, I have repeatedly been presented with the “successes” of SB91. Recidivism (the number of repeat criminal offenders) is down, we’re told. Criminals are being released from prison and finding the straight and narrow, we’re told.
But then there’s the sticky question of why the overall crime rate in Alaska is through the roof. Why are the reports that legislators are getting on the “successes” of SB91 so very different than what I hear when I talk with constituents?
A good friend of mine, a family member of my staffer here in Juneau, just survived a home invasion robbery last week. He had a shotgun. They fled. While legislators are boasting about their successes in passing SB91, he just doesn’t have very many good things to say about SB91 right now.
You see, here’s the thing. It’s easy to make crime statistics look good, just like it’s easy to make drive-thru wait times look really good. Just move everyone to the parking lot.
And that’s exactly what the state has been doing.
State law, AS 33.16.150, states that all prisoners on parole must obey all state, federal or local laws and court-imposed sanctions. It is one of the conditions that a prisoner must agree to in order to be released from prison before they have completed paying their debt to society.
Violating conditions of parole can get you sent back to prison. But those who wrote SB91 insist that sending criminals back to prison is bad for criminals. “It doesn’t work” they say. And state employees listened.
In an email sent on January 11, 2017, Department of Corrections employees were instructed not to charge parolees for violating state, federal and local laws. Doing so “is outside the intent of SB 91” according to the directive sent to state employees.
When parolees aren’t charged with breaking the law, they don’t go back to prison, and SB91’s numbers on repeat offenders look really good. But they aren’t. Alaskans are hurting today because criminals have been given a free pass.
This week, the legislature voted to reduce by $3,000,000 the budget for the courts from the amount requested by the courts and by Governor Dunleavy, telling them to continue to shut their doors early and take Friday afternoons off.
When there’s no crime, of course there’s no need to have the courts open on Fridays. The legislature labeled this a “win” for fiscal restraint. Why aren’t Alaskans cheering?