- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2017

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

Feb. 9, 2017

Ketchikan Daily News: A split decision

Sen. Dan Sullivan remains rightly persistent when it comes to the Ninth Circuit Court.

Sullivan, along with Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, introduced two bills this month to restructure the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.



Their concern is that the court is too large and, as a result, cannot properly handle its caseload.

One bill - the Circuit Court of Appeals Restructuring and Modernization Act - would remove Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington from the 9th Circuit and place them in a newly established 12th Circuit. California, Guam, Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands would remain in the 9th Circuit.

The other bill - the Federal Courts of Appeals Modernization Act - would create a commission to study the Court of Appeals system to quickly dispose of the existing 9th Circuit’s caseload.

Sullivan served as a judicial law clerk for the 9th Circuit.

“The population of the 9th Circuit is nearly 85 percent bigger than the next largest circuit and covers 40 percent of our country’s land mass,” he says. It is simply too large, its scope is too wide, and it has long passed its ability to provide equal access to justice under the law.”

The court has had to use shortcuts to manage its workload, according to Sullivan.

The next-largest appeals court serves only 34.8 million Americans. That court, the 5th Circuit, has 5,593 cases pending compared to the 9th Circuit’s 13,334. The 9th also has the longest average from appeal to termination of all appeals courts.

Two previous studies indicated changes are necessary with the 9th Circuit.

If it requires three, and it appears to, then get it done and act on its advice. It’s way past time for relief for the 9th Circuit and a 12th Circuit.

___

Feb. 11, 2017

Education funding deserves a deeper look

How clean does a classroom need to be?

That’s just one of many questions Kenai Peninsula Borough School District officials find themselves asking as they prepare the next school year’s budget with the expectation of significant cuts in funding from the Legislature.

With more than 80 percent of its budget allocated for employee salaries and benefits, any significant reduction in funding is going to result in cuts to staff. And one possible cut being discussed by administrators is to custodial staff.

So, can schools get by with being swept clean just three nights a week, rather than five

In the short term, the answer is probably yes. But there’s a long-term impact when buildings aren’t properly maintained, and the question is reflective of the state of Alaska’s education funding as a whole.

Funding for public education is the state’s single biggest expenditure - and one that’s mandated in the state constitution - and while many lawmakers will pay lip service to a strong education system, very few are willing to take the same in-depth look at how funding works as they are with things like oil tax credits or whether to restore the vetoed portion of last year’s Permanent Fund dividend.

With education spending at $1.6 billion, one would think that lawmakers would take a much keener interest in the subject.

Instead, education funding seems to be treated as an afterthought, with short-term fixes implemented or drastic cuts made from session to session, leaving school districts to essentially budget paycheck to paycheck.

Why is that a problem? Well, educating a student from kindergarten through high school is a long-term investment. Sure, you can trim some expenses here and there, and the short-term effects might not be noticeable.

Resourceful teachers and a supportive community can make up for a lack of available resources.

But when school districts across the state are figuratively - and sometimes literally - patching things together with duct tape year after year, the overall quality of school district suffers.

We’re not saying that simply throwing money at school districts is the solution. As we noted, the education is the state’s biggest budget item. Lawmakers are addressing a $3 billion budget gap, and because they have not come up with a plan over the past two sessions, they have fewer options now. Cuts are going to be part of the process.

What we are saying is that, whether the Legislature opts to leave school funding at the status quo or chooses to make reductions, it should do so with a view further down the road than the 2017-18 school year.

To do so, however, requires a much deeper dive into education funding by lawmakers than has been done in recent sessions. They will need to look harder into solutions beyond just tweaking a formula, but rather look at programs that work - and then find ways to maintain them.

We think that effort would be a worthwhile investment of time and energy.

Because, like our school buildings, our education system needs to be properly maintained to ensure it is operating as effectively as possible.

___

Feb. 12, 201

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Much-maligned SB 91 needs tweaks from Legislature, not repeal

The rollout for Senate Bill 91, the judicial reform bill passed by the Legislature last year in an effort to combat high recidivism rates and overcrowded prisons, hasn’t gone altogether smoothly. Seen as going easy on criminals by some members of the general public and often criticized by state prosecutors, the law has become a frequent target of those dissatisfied with the judicial system. The Legislature this session has responded by discussing revisions to the law. That’s appropriate. Like many other far-reaching bills, there are ways to tweak SB 91 to be responsive to public concerns without throwing the initiative out entirely.

The problems leading to SB 91’s creation were real and serious. Long sentencing ranges for crimes, the product of tough-on-crime policies in past decades, have had the result of substantially increasing prison populations, at a cost to the state of more than $50,000 per prisoner per year. The decade before SB 91’s passage saw annual prison population growth of 3 percent, with two-thirds of those released from the corrections system going on to reoffend shortly afterward, according to Department of Corrections statistics. With the prison system running at 101 percent capacity even after the opening of the relatively new Goose Creek Correctional Center in Point MacKenzie, the state needed to make changes if it didn’t want to build another $300 million prison with operating costs of $50 million per year. And given the state’s budget woes, sums of that magnitude for capital projects were essentially nonexistent.

With SB 91, sponsored by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, the Legislature departed from the tough-on-crime model. Sentencing ranges were reduced, particularly for nonviolent offenses, and more latitude was given for alternatives to prison such as electronic monitoring while defendants awaited trial. In addition, restorative justice models and rehabilitation programs that have proved effective at reducing recidivism elsewhere were emphasized.

There have been legitimate frustrations with SB 91 since its passage. State lawyers and the public have chafed at reduced sentencing guidelines for the lowest class of felonies that allow some offenders to serve no prison time. And some feel punishment for minor property offenses is insufficient to break shoplifters of their kleptomania impulses before they become a habit. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission has suggested 14 tweaks to the bill in response to those issues. The Legislature should take that recommendation seriously and use it as a model for revision to the law.

Calls to repeal the law entirely, however, are misguided. SB 91 was a bold attempt to improve criminal justice outcomes for Alaska. It may have been too bold in some areas, and in those areas, revisions are suitable. But the problems the bill addresses are serious and, left unaddressed, would do great harm to Alaska’s economy and its communities. The broader goals of the law deserve time for the bill’s effects to make themselves apparent.

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