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Our View: How to keep prison in the past forever

The numbers are grim, if not surprising.

An Alaska Judicial Council study released in 2007 found that 66 percent of Alaskans who had been imprisoned returned to prison within three years for either new offenses or parole or probation violations. Fifty-nine percent were arrested at least once for a new offense.

A later Pew Center study found that more than half of Alaskans released from prison returned to prison.

As with too many criminal numbers, Alaska ranks in the top tier in recidivism and in its per capita prison population -- one in 36 Alaskans was under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Corrections in 2009, compared to one in 90 in 1982.

At the end of 2010, 4,671 Alaskans were in prison and 5,797 were on probation or parole. The numbers suggest most of those would be going back.

That's what the Alaska Prisoner Reentry Task Force, a coalition of groups headed by the Department of Corrections, is trying to prevent.

To that end, the task force will hold a public forum from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Loussac Library's Wilda Marston Theater, 3600 Denali St.

The "Forum on Cost-Effective Justice: Paths to Successful Prisoner Reentry and Reduced Recidivism" will get down to hard challenges faced by those who have done their time and aim to go straight.

Even with determination, good will and good health, it's a hard path. Barriers to employment and housing are understandably high for felons -- how many of us want to take a chance on hiring or renting to ex-cons? For those with histories of substance abuse and/or mental illness, the odds get even longer.

The forum will look at potential solutions to those thorny problems.

Some might ask why. Even without a generous spirit to encourage rehabilitation, Alaskans must consider the state's legal obligation to provide for rehabilitation and the economic costs of failure to break the recidivist cycle. Those costs only begin at about $230 million per year to house the prison population, according to 2010 figures.

Rehabilitation doesn't preclude a tough-on-crime approach; rehabilitation, diversion and alternative sentencing invest more intelligence and a more effective means in fighting crime. Texas, led by nationally known Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden, has had considerable success in looking beyond more prisons and harsher sentencing, especially for nonviolent offenders.

Saturday's forum will include presentations by two ex-offenders who have had success returning to society -- but not with ease. Representatives from different agencies will talk about barriers and what they're doing about them. A photo gallery of sobriety will display pictures of former prisoners in recovery.

Substance abuse treatment, affordable housing, job opportunities, mental health treatment -- all of these can contribute to an Alaskan keeping prison in the past. Yes, they're expensive -- but not nearly as expensive as more prisons, more lost souls and shattered families.

Thoughtful Alaskans know that both a zero tolerance for crime and the gift of second chances are vital for a strong society. Those who break the law and hurt their neighbors must pay the price. But those who pay and want to live well and contribute should have a fighting chance, should have people in their corner, should know they're not alone.

The task force is doing good work. The public is welcome to join them on Saturday.

BOTTOM LINE: Task force aims to help those who get out of prison stay out of prison.