City sets out to address public intoxication
A work session at the Nome Common Council on June 26 ended up the way it started—with a growing issue of public drunkenness looking for a solution. It may take a while for the City to ferret out a solution.
Just pick ‘em up and lock ‘em up is not available as a temporary solution. Public inebriates are not criminals, but victims of a disease—alcoholism. The state constitution forbids arrest; however, case law has put mandatory duty on police to protect drunks from themselves. By statute, intoxicated people have to be protected. A person incapacitated by drugs or alcohol shall be taken to a facility. Such individuals cannot go to the hospital unless they are in need of treatment. Anvil Mountain Correctional Center will not take them due to budget cuts and their possible medically fragile condition and need for continuous medical care.
In the old days, police or community service officers would take inebriates to the hospital for medical clearance and then to AMCC on a 12-hour hold. Now AMCC will not accept intoxicated individuals except under extremely restricted circumstances.
Additionally, new legislation, Senate Bill 91, which decriminalizes many deeds, and the state budget deficit have taken tools out of the law enforcement tool kit, as demonstrated in a presentation to the Council by Nome Police Dept. Chief John Papasodora.
SB 91, the state budget deficit and presiding judge’s orders have “put the hurt on law enforcement and on the amount of law enforcement we can do,” Papasadoras said. SB 91 is basically not a friend to public safety.
“We can’t just take them home and dump them. There has to be a sober person to protect them. Most clients…no one at home wants to take care of them,” he said. The intoxicated person can aspirate, fall down and hurt their heads.
An officer has to interpret the condition and response based on broad parameters, case by case, using the officer’s perception and training, Papasodora said.
The budget deficit has mandated the Alaska Dept. of Corrections to reduce jail and prison populations in order to reduce costs: early release, restrictive remands (going to jail)—no Title 47 (protective) remands, remands above 0.300 BrAC may be refused. Anvil Mountain Correctional Center stopped taking people under Title 47 protective orders after December 2015. These, along with mandated compliance with a set of Presiding Judge Orders handed down at the same time as SB91, have limited options for dealing with homeless drunks needing protection or committing crimes.
Presiding judge orders?
These are sets of standing orders for procedures in trial courts, pertaining to sets of situations, as violating conditions of release, for example. SB 91 decriminalized all but the most serious offenses in Alaska. This legislation, passed in the last legislative session eliminated jail time for all “B” misdemeanors and many “A” misdemeanors. This means there is no jail time for alcohol related disorderly conduct, trespass, or violations of release conditions. The measure ruled out jail time for first time “C” felony convictions, reducing the consequence to probation only, and raised the threshold amounts in Theft cases and eliminated jail time for Theft IV to $250 or less.
“The effect is that all B misdemeanor offenses are an automatic dismissal. The time and resources required to prosecute are disproportionate to the results—no jail time or fines,” Papasodora explained. More serious “A” misdemeanors are similarly screened. Many “C” felonies are reduced to “A” misdemeanors, which have more serious consequences. Many “C” felonies are dismissed. “C” felonies include crimes like Assault 3, Burglary 2 and property damage of certain amounts.
The presiding judge’s bail order, issued at the same time when SB changes went into effect, includes the order that nearly all arrests are released on Own Recognizance, with no requirement to post bail, without a monetary loss to deter continued behaviors.
The outcome is that “offenders are aware that even if they commit crimes, that the likely outcomes will not be punitive or sufficient to personally impact them,” Papasodora told the Council in his presentation.
To top it all off, Nome’s district attorney staff is covering Kotzebue and Nome.
“There is no way they can adequately address cases coming into the door,” Papasodora said. “Lots of cases are being dismissed—no fines, no restitution. The message to the public is that there are no sanctions.”
“If they are crazy enough to dump this on us, we can do something,” Councilman Stan Andersen said.
In discussion, the Council floated ideas as voluntary no sales lists at the liquor stores, limiting liquor store hours and increase open container penalties to mirror marijuana penalties: $100 the first time, $500 the second violation within a 12-month period, and mandatory court for the third violation within a 12-month period. Liquor store vendors could limit the alcohol a person could buy each day—a liter a day, two 12-packs, two bottles of wine.
Additionally the City can install barriers to common sites where public inebriates gather—behind the Visitor Center, behind the old museum and library building and behind and around the Mini Convention Center, Papasodora suggested.
As for the seawall facing the Bering Sea, “It’s a road back there,” Andersen said. “We can do anything we damned please. We can post it,” he declared. “If posted and you go there, you go to jail.”
A suggestion asked for cameras to monitor where public consumption was occurring. Port Director Joy Baker agreed to check the cost for a change order on a Port of Nome security lighting project to train lights on some of the public drinking sites.
The City has enlisted the help of the NEST homeless shelter by providing the nonprofit the money to help three habitual inebriates to go home to their villages recently. That program could be expanded through a partnership with various nonprofits who could help people get home with their agreement.
Papasodora has stressed that the old-fashioned “Blue Ticket” program from earlier days that forced people to fly out of town was illegal.
Within the Council packet of documents for the meeting, Lance Johnson, head of Norton Sound Health Corp. Behavior Health Services, asked for the City to set aside the old museum and library building on Front Street as a monitored day shelter sobering center on the first floor for homeless or intoxicated persons and the second floor as an Alano Club. An Alano Club is a charter-based entity of sober persons seeking to support the sobriety and wellness of other sober persons.
Additionally, Johnson urged the City to put a 10 percent excise tax on the sale of alcohol to fund the City’s increased service needs to deal with increased numbers of intoxicated persons in the city’s center and increased incidence of assault, vandalism and trespassing.
Papasodora also put forward suggested changes to City law and new ordinances that the City will consider.