Spring Creek Correctional Center, Seward, Alaska. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)
On January 1, Alaska joined a growing national trend in favor of bail reform when it enacted a new law that eliminates money bail for most defendants.
The new system uses a risk assessment tool to evaluate the risk that a defendant will miss a court date or be arrested for a new crime. Judges will use the risk score generated by this algorithm in deciding whether to set bail and at what amount.
The new law creates a presumption that most people will be released without bail. Judges must release people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or class C felonies who have low risk scores and can set secured bail bonds only for people charged with violent offenses who have high risk scores.
About 60 officers in the new Pretrial Enforcement Division will create risk assessment reports for judges, recommend bail amounts and release conditions, and supervise released defendants. Release conditions can include drug and alcohol testing, meetings with officers, and electronic monitoring, which are paid for by the state under the new law. Previously, only defendants who could afford to hire a private company could obtain release by agreeing to these conditions.
The bail reforms are the last stage of the multiyear implementation of Senate Bill 91, the comprehensive criminal justice reform bill signed into law in Alaska in 2016 and designed to move "low-risk" offenders out of jail and into treatment or community supervision. The decision to curb Alaska's widespread use of money bail came after researchers found it was directly related to dramatic increases in the state's prison population, which increased 27 percent between 2005 and 2014.
The case for ending money bail is strengthening across the country with the adoption of reforms in jurisdictions like Chicago, Houston, and New Jersey. Advocates for reform argue that jailing people merely because they cannot pay bail is discriminatory, expensive, and severely disrupts the lives of poor people, without providing much, if any, public safety benefit.
In Alaska, people who were eligible for release but too poor to pay for bail or private electronic monitoring were held in jail at a rate of $150 a day, Geri Fox, a former Utah corrections official who is now head of the new pretrial unit, told the Anchorage Daily News.
Money-based bail systems also have been found to cause significant racial disparities in pretrial detention and in who is sentenced to prison in the United States.
Similar risk assessment tools have been utilized in other jurisdictions that have reformed bail, including Kentucky and New Jersey, and some have been found to be racially biased, at least in part because they rely on racially-skewed factors like criminal history. Casey Reynolds, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner that his organization will be monitoring implementation of the new system.
With the new reforms in place, researchers estimate that the number of incarcerated people in Alaska will decrease by 13 percent and the state will save $380 million. At least $98 million of that savings will be reinvested in crime victim services, pretrial services and supervision, re-entry support, substance abuse and mental health treatment in both prison and communities, and violence prevention.