Alaska lawmakers seek to cap fast-rising prison expenses

Lisa DemerAlaska Dispatch News
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Alaska's growing -- and expensive -- prison population is getting new attention from state legislators, who say they want to try new ways to lower inmate numbers.

And they are looking hardest at those who have already been there.

Lowering Alaska's high rate of repeat offenders would not only save money but also could mean a better life out of jail for those who now keep getting in trouble, legislators said.

House and Senate panels that oversee the state corrections budget hosted a daylong "Smart Justice Summit" at the Legislative Information Office in Anchorage Monday to learn how other states tackled the problem and to examine what innovations might work in Alaska.

"There are escalating costs that are of significant concern," said Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat from Anchorage who chairs the corrections budget panel in the Senate.

This year's operating budget for the state Department of Corrections tops $288 million, up more than $110 million from what was being spent 10 years ago, according to the agency.

The state's new Goose Creek prison, which is supposed to open next July, cost about $250 million to build, and if state leaders don't flip the trend, it'll be full in just a couple of years.

Liberals and conservatives can unite over reforms that cut costs while offering more help for offenders, Ellis said. For example, he said he backs all the principles -- including accountability, lowering crime and rehabilitation -- espoused by an initiative called Right on Crime that includes high profile conservatives, Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush and Ed Meese among them.

"It's a magic moment," Ellis said.

In a sense, crowded prisons are a problem of politicians' own making, the result of get-tough-on-crime laws that swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Alaska's Legislature passed its share.

1 IN 36

A 2007 study by the Alaska Judicial Council found that two-thirds of Alaska inmates returned to prison.

Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, who took office in January 2007, told legislators at the summit that his team has been working ever since to curb the repeats.

About 40 percent of the inmates who went through new prison rehabilitation programs ended up back in the system within a year of being released, Schmidt said. That number will rise as time passes but should remain well below the 66 percent recidivism rate from the earlier study, which covered a period of three years after release from prison, he said.

Alaska is among eight states that experienced the biggest increase in prison populations between the end of 2008 and the start of 2010, according to a Pew Center on the States study cited by Carmen Gutierrez, a former defense lawyer who now is a deputy corrections commissioner. In Alaska, the prison population rose almost 4 percent. In many states, including California and Texas, the population dropped.

One in 36 Alaska adults was either in prison, jail or a halfway house or on probation or parole as of the end of 2007, another Pew Center report found. In 1982, the figure for Alaska was 1 in 90.

Alaska imprisons its residents at a much higher rate than the national average, Gutierrez told legislators.


Some of the answer may come from Texas.

State Rep. Jerry Madden, a Texas Republican who chairs the corrections committee there, has become a national leader in prison reform.

When he took over the committee in 2005, the House speaker gave him one directive: "Don't build new prisons. They cost too much."

"Eight words that changed my life," Madden told Alaska legislators at Monday's summit.

By 2007, Texas legislators were struggling with a projection that their prison system would fall short by 17,700 beds in five years. That's about triple the number incarcerated in Alaska's entire system. While the Texas system is huge -- with about 150,000 in prison or jail -- it couldn't absorb that many.

So Madden and his counterpart in the Texas Senate began searching for ways to slow down the number coming in the front door. Either that, or release big numbers of convicts early. That didn't seem a wise choice for a Texas politician, he said.

They found out that many people were ending up in prison because of probation violations, such as failing a drug test. Many of those in prison were there for first-time drug offenses. The analysis went deep: Many offenders were coming from just a few rough areas of Houston. Meanwhile, drug and alcohol treatment programs had been cut in Texas communities.

So Texas poured hundreds of millions into mental health and drug and alcohol treatment, much of it specifically targeted at people in prison or on probation or parole. That approach cost less than half of what building prisons would cost, Madden said.

"If Texas can do it, why can't we?" Ellis said.


The Alaska legislators want to make changes with the help of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. The center helps selected states reinvent their justice systems.

Robert Coombs, a senior policy analyst with the center, told the legislators that just analyzing a state's prison population data can take six to 18 months but it's essential to dig into the roots of the problem before trying to fix it.

To succeed, Coombs said, states need to focus on the people most likely to commit more crimes, invest in programs that are proven to work, target areas with the worst crime rates, and employ quick sanctions for those who falter, along with ready treatment.

State Sen. Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, highlighted one area where Alaska could begin:

Most Alaska inmates now are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses and burglary, a change from 2002 when most had been convicted of violent crimes such as assaults and sexual abuse.

It costs an average of $136 a day to house an offender in Alaska, compared with less than $7 to supervise someone on parole, according to the state Corrections Department.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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