Thoughts on our Fall Constituent Meeting
Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Last week Senator Begich and I hosted our fall constituent meeting. The focus was neighborhood public safety. Of course this has been a topic of conversation for our area, as well as throughout Anchorage and around the state. We must invest in public safety and we need to reverse some of the cuts to prosecutors and Troopers that I fought against over the last few years. My goal in organizing this meeting with the speakers that were our guests was to give many perspectives on the challenges we are facing, from our law enforcement and prosecutors to a mom and community activist whose daughter is a heroin addict.
Below are my notes and thoughts on what I heard.
I started my comments with sharing some of the efforts we have done in our neighborhoods over the last several years to improve public safety, from hosting Neighborhood Watch training to conducting a crime survey, educating neighbors about how to properly report crimes, hosting a public safety fair with training on emergency preparedness, Green Dot (anti-violence training), Trail Watch, Neighborhood Patrols, helping to form a neighborhood patrol, walking our neighborhoods to find overhead lights that are out and need to be fixed or problem areas where bushes are overgrown and creating hiding spots, and park clean-ups to minimize hiding places and homeless camps.
You can find results of the crime survey done in Airport Heights, the public safety alert, ideas generated by neighbors that were used to present to the Anchorage Assembly, and articles about the police visiting our community councils.
At the meeting I also spoke about SB 54, a bill that would reinstate the ability for judges to sentence jail time for first time offenses for C felonies. I support SB 54 and told neighbors they could weigh in and ask for action on this legislation. We've been told that giving this tool back to judges will help when addressing property crime and vehicle theft. Well, today Governor Walker announced he would put Senate Bill 54, to change sentencing for C felonies, so that judges can give jail time, rather than the probationary and rehabilitative sentence they would get on their first offense under SB 91, on the call for the upcoming special session. You can read the bill here
As a reminder, the speaker line up was: Chief Justin Doll (Anchorage Police Department), Clint Campion(Anchorage District Attorney), Suzanna DiPietro & Barbara Dunham (Alaska Justice Commission), Tom Chard (Alaska Behavioral Health Association), Doreen Schenkenberger & Cathleen McLaughlin (Partners for Progress), and Kim Whitaker (Anchorage Opiate Task Force).
It helped me to understand what is happening when I learned that it takes 18 months from the time of hire for an officer to get onto the street. Chief Doll talked about how important the training is and that they don't cut corners in terms of making sure their officers are ready.
I later asked about the Property Crimes and Gang Units, detective units that had been cut or reduced due when there weren't enough officers. Chief Doll said the Gang Unit hasn't been reinstated, but they hope it will, and that there is a Property Crimes Unit, although it is smaller than it was before.
This article from last August (before SB 91 was law) talks about the Gang Unit: http://www.ktuu.com/content/news/Retired-cop-joins-Polynesian-community-activist-to-talk-about-Anchorages-gang-problem-391452931.html.
Following Chief Doll was outgoing Anchorage District Attorney Clint Campion. The big take away for me was that his ability to prosecute crimes is limited due to budget cuts. They are down 50 prosecutors, he told us, and as a result they are only prosecuting homicides, sexual assaults, and sexual abuse of a minor. He said that's why vehicle thefts and other crimes aren't being prosecuted. I fought those cuts to the operating budget. I will continue fighting for more prosecutors. He said they have 100 cases going to trial in the next year related to the rise in homicides. Our system will only work is there are resources at every step in the process. I should mention this has been an issue for years, something I've been working on well before the legislature, when I worked on domestic violence issues. We've had the problem in domestic violence cases where they are plead to a lower crime like assault because of lack of resources. We must add some positions back so these crimes can be prosecuted.
After Clint was Susanne DiPietro and Barbara Dunham of the Alaska Justice Commission. They Alaska Justice Commission is a temporary body that was formed through the passage of a bill that came before SB 91, and they were tasked with researching the issues and recommending changes. Barbara talked about how SB 91 has 3 parts to it, 2 of 3 have been implemented now. The first part is about C felonies, like theft. The second is bail conditions and the third, the part that hasn't been implemented, is increased oversight of those on probation. The work was initiated when we learned that 95% of inmates are returned to communities, that 2 out of 3 commit another crime and end up back in jail, that at the current rate of incarceration we would need to build another Goose Creek prison that would cost $240 million to build and $60 million to operate, and that 80% of those in jail were there for substance abuse or mental health issues. She talked about how the 3rd part of the bill, the increased oversight of parolees, would begin in January 2018. The 3rd part was because they learned that the time when a person was most likely to commit another crime was recently after they were released so they are going to follow individuals much more closely upon release to try and prevent them from committing new crimes and staying on track with treatment and employment.
They invited community members to attend their meetings, provide input, and follow their work. Here is the link to their page
Tom Chard, Executive Director of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association, spoke next, about the stigma associated with substance abuse and mental health issues. He emphasized that Medicaid Expansion is critical for getting people services and that we have a shortage of services and providers.
I have fought for funding for these services every year I've been in the legislature. Cuts to these are penny wise and pound foolish because left untreated these problems just get worse and become community issues we all have to deal with.
Doreen Schenkenberger & Cathleen McLaughlin of Partners for Progress are working with recently released individuals to try and find them housing and jobs. They talked about how hard it is to find house and employment with a felony record. They invited the community to participate in their efforts because they are a community driven organization. Cathleen talked about the problem of individuals who are from rural villages getting stuck in Anchorage because they are court ordered to participate in a program like treatment, but there is a waiting list for treatment so they can't get in, and they get stuck in Anchorage. It's not good for them and may lead to committing another crime.
Last, but definitely not least was Kim Whitaker from the Anchorage Opiate Task Force and Real About Addiction. She shared her personal story of being a mom with a heroin addict daughter. Her daughter has been using for years, struggles with mental illness, has been through treatment multiple times, and in and out of jail. She shared her struggle of trying to help her and having to accept the limits to what she could do. She shared that the Anchorage Opiate Task Force meets in our neighborhood at the Anchor Park United Methodist Church on Oak Street. She invite neighbors to attend.
Couldn’t Make the Meeting?
If we missed you last week, and you’d like to watch the meeting, you can find it on my Facebook page or here.
Here are notes from an Airport Heights neighbor that shared on Facebook, for another perspective.
1 - APD Chief Doll - I had a hard time hearing him. He addressed the survey and the police officers on bikes. He talked about staffing and the great training new officers receive, which delays how long it takes them to get out on the streets but makes our department better. He stated that vehicle theft rates seem to be down in August, but it's not a trend as it is only this month and could be an anomaly.
2 - Clint Campion of the DA's Office - There are 10-15% less cases in 2017 than last year, a difference of about 300, but then went on to say there was a 400-600 increase in crimes so I found that confusing? He stated that the budget is down and they are limited in their ability to respond to nonviolent crime. He flat-out said that their priority is not property crime. They focus on felonies, but specifically murder and sexual assault are their current focus. It takes 2 years from arrest to trial, on average. Many of you may have seen the news stories on this, but he stated that theft and vehicle theft are both notoriously hard to prove and urged everyone to report it right away if your vehicle is stolen as it makes it easier to arrest someone. They are understaffed at the DA's office.
3 - Justice Commission - Formed to study and address prison population growing faster than general population during a budget crisis. They recommended SB91 to the legislature. Within 3 years, 2/3 of released prisoners in the state were back in prison. The data points to prison making lower-level offenders worse. For higher level offenders, 5 years in prison offers as much positive impact that 10 years provides.
Things you might not know include:
4 - Tom Chard from the Alaska Behavioral Health Association - Emphasized the problem of stigma associated with addiction and mental illness/treatment. Medicaid Expansion is helping, but until recently, Medicaid in Alaska didn't recognize addiction as a disability. Medicaid rates cover 60% of costs for services, which is a problem and makes it extremely difficult to hire counselors. He shared a resource called "Recover Alaska. They have a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Recover Alaska.org
5 - Partners for Progress - This is a program that focuses on reducing recidivism and advocating for "justice that protects and heals". They are supportive of diversionary and pretrial services as important cogs in the wheel. One thing emphasized was the mental health courts, also known as "wellness court". There are 19 wellness courts statewide now and it's a model that works better. 2/3 of the people who go through therapeutic court stay out of jail (flip those numbers for the regular system, as seen above, where 2/3 of released prisoners reoffend within as little a time period as 3 months).
6 - Partners Reentry Center - They work closely with DOC and people released from incarceration. They have a walk-in center and offer all kinds of services, including help with housing, bus passes, the process of getting a job, peer support, therapy groups and classes to address criminal thinking, case management to link them with resources, etc. They talked about the issues related to Alaska Natives coming here from villages for services and ending up homeless, which they are focusing in on. They are also offering on-site substance abuse assessments in partnership with CITC Recovery Services at no/low cost. Also emphasized was that they provide support for those who want to change and accountability is part of that process.
7 - Kim Whitaker - Kim created a non-profit called REAL About Addiction and formed the Opiate Task Force that meets monthly at the church on Oak Drive. She works with people who have addictions and their families, linking them to treatment and providing on-going support. She shared the story of her daughter's diagnosis with mental illness at age 11, followed by her daughter beginning to use drugs at 14 and being addicted to heroin by age 19.
Her program offers a support group twice a month for family members who have a loved one who is addicted to opiates (again at the church). There is a Run/Walk for Recovery on September 16th and a rally on the park strip on the 17th at 3 pm with the byline "Let's Make Recovery the Epidemic".
Kim emphasized the need to remember that these are people with people who love them. She addressed the stigma and derogatory name-calling we do of these people, forgetting they are human and they are suffering. She emphasized the need for mental illness and addiction services and wants to change Title 47 to include addiction as a reason for involuntary commitment.
Kim shared that in studies, when homeless individuals with alcoholism were admitted involuntarily to treatment, after 30 days 50% of them wanted to stay longer. She mentioned that addiction damages the brain (and this is true - especially when severe and chronic, which can lead to temporary or permanent loss of the ability to even recognize they have a problem). She advocated for the need for more treatment resources for mental health/addiction. She also stated that Mat-Su is miles ahead of Anchorage when it comes to establishing more detox and treatment options.
It’s so great to see how many partners we have around our community working towards progress for safe streets here in Anchorage!
P.S. Please get in touch if we can be of assistance!