Alaska ranks high in rate of criminals returning to prison

NO SURPRISE: But a state official questions method of comparison.

April 13, 2011 

More than half of all Alaska prisoners released in 2004 returned to prison within three years, according to a national study released Wednesday by the Pew Center on the States.

At a recidivism rate of 50.4 percent, Alaska joined five other states -- Minnesota, California, Missouri, Illinois and Vermont -- where convicts are most likely to re-offend. The study tracked prisoners until 2007 and included more than 5,800 ex-cons in Alaska who were caught committing new crimes or breaking the conditions of their release before heading back behind bars.

"I see these guys, over and over again, all the time," said Sgt. Randy McLellan, president of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association. "We call it life on the installment plan."

It's an expensive problem.

Alaska could save $24.6 million per year if the state shaved its recidivism rate by 10 percent, the study said.

The nonprofit Pew Center calls the study the first state-by-state analysis of re-offender rates of its kind.

Compiling and comparing the data was a daunting task. Recidivism rates are based on a slew of factors, from how aggressive state laws are at punishing people to how each state tracks its prisoners, said Adam Gelb, director of the center's Public Safety Performance Project, which authored the report.

"There's a lot to unpack here," Gelb said. "We were hoping to spark sort of a deeper set of questions about what do these mean in each state?"

While the new numbers are helpful, the Department of Corrections has improved its rehabilitation programs in recent years, said Carmen Gutierrez, the department's deputy director of rehabilitation and re-entry.

Anger-management and parenting classes, education and substance abuse programs have all improved in its prison facilities since 2007, she said.

McLellan, president of the corrections officer union, said he hasn't seen major changes.

"Those are programs that are available to the prisoners," McLellan said. "However, they've been available to the prisoners for the almost 14 years I've been in Corrections."

Gutierrez said Corrections officials are taking the study results seriously.

"We don't dispute the fact that we have a high rate of recidivism," she said.

She had read the study that morning and was hesitant to compare Alaska to other states. Plus, she noted, unlike many other states, the study did not compare Alaska's more recent rates to similar numbers from 1999 to 2002.

As a result, it's unclear if Alaska was making progress at keeping convicts from returning to prison.

During the more recent three-year period Pew studied, only two rehabilitative programs existed in Alaska prisons, Gutierrez said.

"The underlying problems that created or promoted the criminal behavior have not been addressed, so they come out with the pre-existing issues, new problems that have occurred as a result of being incarcerated, and then they're labeled a convicted felon," she said.

The University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research estimated that a 10 percent drop in future prison populations could be achieved by spending $4 million a year on expanding current rehabilitation programs.

But spending more state money in the short term isn't necessarily the answer, Gutierrez said. If the department proves that its new programs are working, more funding might be warranted, she said.

"It's not so much that we necessarily need more money; we need to look at how we spend that money, and maybe reinvest it up front to provide some of the needed rehabilitative services so that these people don't keep coming back, in and out," Gutierrez said.

Alaska spends about $44,000 a year per inmate to house people in prisons, jails and halfway houses, ISER reported in 2009.

In a separate study released that same year, the Pew Center looked at how many people are being incarcerated in each state. It found that as of 2007, one in 88 adult Alaskans was in a state jail or federal prison.

That was the 12th-highest rate in the country.

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