News-Miner opinion: The Department of Public Safety’s Crime in Alaska report for 2020 contained some great news for the state: There was a reduction in crime across Alaska in most categories last year.
Reports from 32 of the state’s police agencies showed Alaska’s overall crime rate dropped 18.5%, continuing a trend that started in 2018, the department says. The overall number of reported offenses last year dropped to its lowest level since 1975. Reports of property crimes last year decreased 22.9% from 2019. The number of violent crimes reported last year in the state decreased 3.8% from the previous year, except for rape. Alaska, with the highest rape rate in the nation, showed a 3.1% increase in rapes last year, with 1,135 reported.
Fairbanks reported 1,994 criminal offenses in 2020, a 0.25% drop from 2019, the annual report found. Reports of rape decreased 27.27%, robbery decreased 21.15% and larceny decreased 9.74% compared to the previous year, the News-Miner reported. But assaults increased 16.48%, vehicle theft increased 7.07%, and burglary increased 4.91% compared to the previous year.
Why the overall decline in crime? A variety of factors likely played a role; a rising aging population, a shrinking state population and Covid-19 bursting onto the state stage early last year, with its accompanying lockdowns, closures and restrictions. Then, there were the dramatic changes in 2016’s sweeping Crime Reform Bill, or what became known at Senate Bill 91.
North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill worked with the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and Pew Charitable Trusts to come up with SB 91 as a way to reduce the money spent on prisons as budgets shrank. SB 91, signed into law by former Gov. Bill Walker, significantly cut prison sentences — with the aim of reducing incarceration costs — for all but the most heinous offenses and it affected almost every aspect of criminal justice in the state.
SB 91, for instance, barred prison time for first and second theft convictions for amounts of less than $250. It made first-time Class-C felonies punishable by only probation. Several other provisions in the law were seen by some as giving petty criminals the green light to prey on Alaskans.
The law heavily affected the state’s bail system, clearing the way for Alaska to create a tool to assess a person’s risk of failing to appear for court or committing new crimes. The law required those who scored low on risk factors be released without bail to save the state money.
The changes had the new statute being referred to by many irate Alaskans as the “Catch and Release Law,” and it never won support it needed to succeed. Services — counseling, substance abuse aversion and re-entry programs, for instance — envisioned by Coghill and others never materialized.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy vowed during the run-up to 2018’s election he would be tough on crime and his Omnibus Crime Bill, House Bill 49, was passed and signed into law seven months after he took office. The legislation aimed to repeal and, for the most part, replace Coghill’s SB91. It did just that. Dunleavy’s HB 49, which he described as “just a beginning,” aims to send more convicted criminals to prison for longer terms for many felonies, along with returning discretion in sentencing to judges and raising bail requirements.
HB49 sets timeframes for submission and testing of “rape kits” and notification of victims that the tests have been completed. It also requires Alaska to collect DNA from 20,022 offenders who, Dunleavy says, owe the state a DNA sample under state law.
So, why exactly did crime drop across the state? Austin McDaniel, acting director of the Department of Public Safety, said, “There isn’t a single answer for why crime decreased in 2020.”
So, a combination of several factors — an aging population, population declines over the past four years, the Covid-19 explosion and Dunleavy’s HB 49 — may have produced the perfect storm to reduce crime in Alaska last year. Whatever the reasons, the decrease is welcome news for the state.