Alaska News

New report offers options to help Alaska reverse its growing prison problem

The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission on Thursday released a set of recommendations for reforming the state's justice system that, if adopted, the commission says would significantly reduce the state's prison population and save $424 million over the next decade.

Those recommendations, which come after seven months of collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts, include re-evaluating pretrial practices, focusing on incarceration for serious and violent offenders, strengthening parole and probation to keep Alaskans from reoffending and prioritizing the needs of crime victims.

The commission also said the recommendations should ensure oversight and accountability. The changes would reduce the state's average daily prison population by 21 percent over 10 years, it said.

Commission Chair Greg Razo said during a press conference Thursday at the Hotel Captain Cook that lawmakers should accept the recommendations as a body of work, not a "menu of choices to choose from."

"We'll be there with you through the session," he said.

Among the recommendations in the 35-page report:

• Expanding the use of citations in place of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

• Deciding whether to release someone before trial based on the likelihood they'll return for subsequent hearings or commit other crimes, instead of on their ability to pay a monetary bond. A review of court files showed the majority of cases required some type of monetary bond and "52 percent of sampled defendants were detained for the entirety of their pretrial period," the report says.

• Focusing resources on high-risk defendants -- those who are "most likely to fail" or reoffend, the report says. More restrictive release conditions would be reserved for these offenders.

• Limiting the use of prison space for low-level misdemeanor offenders by reclassifying some misdemeanors and violations, including changing disorderly conduct laws to allow for arrests but limit jail time to 24 hours, among other changes, the report says.

• Revising drug penalties to focus the most severe punishments on serious drug crimes. Among the specific actions recommended, lawmakers are encouraged to reclassify the simple possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine as a misdemeanor.

• Implementing a specialty parole option for long-term, geriatric inmates.

•? Incentivizing treatment for sex offenders with sentence reductions for completing treatment.

The last of the commission's recommendations would require the collection of data to measure performance of the new laws and policies, as well as the establishment of an oversight council.

Reversing the trends

Calls for reform started more than a year ago. Pew joined the effort after the state sought out the aid of the nonprofit, which had already conducted data-driven work and helped reform several other states' criminal justice systems.

"Pew brought expertise and facilitation we wouldn't have had otherwise," said nonvoting commission member Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole. "The recommendations are in addition to the things the Legislature was already contemplating."

Alaska's inmate population grew 27 percent over the past decade, nearly three times faster than the resident population. The state's newest prison facility, the $240 million Goose Creek Correctional Center, has quickly filled its beds since it began operating in 2012.

The growth got a lot of attention. Officials said the state would surpass its ability to house inmates by 2017 and hundreds of millions of dollars would be needed to construct yet another corrections facility, if things didn't change.

"Without a shift in sentencing and corrections policy, Alaska's average daily prison population is projected to grow by another 1,416 inmates over the next decade," the report says.

What resulted are bipartisan efforts from lawmakers to reverse the siphoning of a disproportionate amount of resources into criminal justice. The efforts are also being touted as a way to save the state money during a budget crisis.

"You have to save money before you can spend it, and that's what we're doing here," Coghill said. "Instead of spending $170 a night to house someone in jail, we could invest $100 into a program that doesn't include prison and gets the same results."

Report: Imprisonment ineffective

The state senator and Razo emphasized implementing improvements in things like electronic monitoring. The commission's report says that for many offenders, imprisonment is no more effective than supervised release when it comes to reducing the likelihood they'll return to jail.

"We want to reduce recidivism," said Razo, who is also the vice president of Cook Inlet Region Inc.. "Currently, two out of three people reoffend, and that's unacceptable. It brings us to the inescapable conclusion that the way we're doing criminal justice here in Alaska needs to be improved."

Coghill said legislators will extensively vet the recommendations. There may be options that save money but deliver the same results, and lawmakers will have to weigh those options, he said.

He said much of his focus has been on pretrial issues. Alaska's pretrial population grew by 80 percent over the past decade, driven by longer lengths of stay in prison.

The growing pretrial population creates many problems, including somewhat "holding facilities hostage," Coghill said. Pretrial inmates take priority in institutions, so Alaskans serving longer sentences have to be moved around to accommodate them. That makes it hard for offenders to stay on track with programs that help correct behavior, he said.

‘Huge priority’

At Thursday's press conference, Gov. Bill Walker said he looked forward to reading the report and thanked everyone involved in its creation for their work.

"We have a lot on the plate this session, and more seems to be added as we go, but this is a huge priority for us," Walker said.

The commission made steps toward meaningful change, he added. The dire situation facing the state's criminal justice system is ripe with opportunity, he said, as he views the prison population as a potential workforce.

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Craig Stowers said the court system gave the commission its best for working toward solutions. He said justice officials in the state are seriously strained and the system, in a lot of ways, is broken.

"We're looking to be your star state," Stowers said to Pew officials sitting in the crowd. "In a way, we have a lot more to gain," he said, because Alaska is facing a more severe budget situation than many other states.