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Under publicity's glare, Alaska Corrections Department shifts policies on halfway houses

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: July 3, 2016
  • Published July 3, 2016

As inmates walk away from Anchorage's four privately owned halfway houses almost every other day, and some use their freedom to elude police or commit new crimes, state and city officials are grappling over who should be allowed to stay there.

The state Department of Corrections has gone back and forth on policies restricting people facing felony charges from halfway houses — minimum-security temporary detention facilities where it's possible to walk out the door without being stopped, though doing so is a crime. Anchorage police, meanwhile, frustrated by the rate of walkaways, recently embarked on a subtle online campaign to call out the issue.  

Behind the scenes, the situation is fluid. In February, the new corrections commissioner ended an agreement reached by his predecessors that barred people arrested for felonies from Anchorage halfway houses. The practice of sending so-called  "pretrial felons" to halfway houses dates back to 2006, but it had quietly ended in fall 2014, based on a verbal agreement between then-Anchorage police chief Mark Mew and then-DOC Commissioner Joe Schmidt. Mew and Schmidt both saw people awaiting trial on felonies as more likely to leave halfway houses. 

New Commissioner Dean Williams was trying to save money, said Corrections spokesman Corey Allen-Young. Halfway houses, minimum-security extensions of jails, cost about $50 less per day than a jail cell.  

"It's not like this is a brand-new concept," Allen-Young said of placing inmates awaiting trial on felony charges in halfway houses.

But after a high-profile string of walkaways from halfway houses, including one man being held on felony charges in connection with a wave of vehicle thefts, DOCs officials tightened up screening procedures. This week, the department decided to go back to barring people accused of felonies from halfway houses entirely, Allen-Young said.

Anchorage Police Department officials say it's a good first step for managing the private halfway houses, but much more needs to be done to keep the public safe.

Meanwhile, Corrections officials say it's a statewide issue. The rate of Alaska inmates leaving halfway houses and not coming back has roughly tripled since 2010, though such cases amount to only a small percentage of the overall halfway house population. There are eight halfway houses in the state — four in Anchorage, and one each in Bethel, Fairbanks, Nome and Juneau.   

Qualifying for a halfway house

Halfway houses, as the name implies, were originally meant to bridge prison and freedom, controlled housing where inmates could work during the day and sleep under watchful eyes at night. But their roles expanded as prisons became more expensive to operate and politicians, vowing to "get tough on crime," created longer sentences, especially for drug violators.

The centers also came to house inmates who couldn't make bail. In the late 1990s, with jail cells teeming, the state of Alaska began shifting people awaiting trial on with misdemeanor charges to halfway houses. In 2006, people charged with nonviolent felony offenses, such as forgery, came into the mix. 

How DOC decides whether a pretrial inmate qualifies for a halfway house essentially comes down to a checklist on a form.

Sex offenses, crimes related to arson, domestic violence restraining orders and bail set at more than $15,000 are among the automatic disqualifiers for halfway house placement. If the person is pretrial, a charge of a violent felony charge also bars placement in a halfway house, but that doesn't necessarily extend to violent convictions in the past.

Changes to the form happen every year, for both practical and political reasons. On Feb. 24, at Williams' direction, the state's institutions division added a box to once again allow people arrested on felony charges into halfway houses.

An agreement between top officials

In 2014, a total of 155 people, walked away from Anchorage's four halfway houses — a decrease from the prior year, but more than twice as many as in 2010.

Then-APD chief Mew was frustrated. He saw a public safety issue associated with a certain subset of inmates. At the time, nearly half of Anchorage's total halfway house population, more than 180 people, were being held for trial on felony or misdemeanor charges. 

In an email this week, Mew said a "high percentage" of those who walked away were being held on felony charges.

"Several of them engaged in very aggressive behavior while on the run, and they were difficult and dangerous to capture," Mew wrote from Yaounde, Cameroon, where he is training police for United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Mew approached commissioner Schmidt. He wanted a moratorium on pretrial felons in Anchorage halfway houses. Schmidt agreed.

Schmidt, who now supervises school safety for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, said in a phone interview this week he believed halfway houses should be for people who are finishing their sentences and reintegrating into society — that's the point of the term "halfway house," he said.

"That's certainly not what a pretrial felon is doing," Schmidt said. "A pretrial felon doesn't know what their fate is going to be."

In general, the state's pretrial population has been little understood. When the Alaska Judicial Council started researching the state's pretrial population several years ago for a major criminal justice reform bill, Senate Bill 91, council staff and Pew Research Center employees found a startling lack of information on the pretrial population. No computerized data was available about pretrial release decisions, and the research had to be conducted through paper files.

Advocates for prisoner rights say halfway houses are essential to the civil rights of the accused. Anchorage criminal defense attorney James Christie said the facilities keep lives from being disrupted, particularly people who have not yet been convicted of a crime.

"It's tempting to say that if you didn't put anybody in there, there wouldn't be anybody committing a new crime," Christie said. "But also, you'd destroy the lives of an awful lot of people who were wrongly accused and who will go on to be acquitted of the only criminal charge in their life."

Neither APD nor DOC could provide data showing pretrial felons are more likely than other types of inmates, such as parolees, to leave and commit new crimes. And even as walkaway rates rise, the department reported a drop-off in recent years in the number of people who commit new crimes while free. There's just one case of an escaped inmate committing a new crime reported so far in 2016, according to DOC.

Pressure from APD

In late May, the Anchorage police launched a campaign of regularly alerting citizens and the media when someone walked away from a halfway house. The alerts came regardless of whether the walkaway — officially an escapee — was convicted and serving a sentence or being held for trial, or was thought to be a risk to the public.

"We believe it's a public safety issue," Deputy Chief Garry Gilliam said of the campaign, in a phone interview. "We want the public to know these individuals are at large in our community."

In June, APD sent out 18 alerts on the community message service Nixle relating to halfway house walkways, compared to five in May and zero in April. In recent alerts, police also included the criminal histories of the walkaways.

The timing of APD's Nixle campaign appears to stem from a walkaway in early May. A man named Tagaloa Tanuvasa left the Cordova Center and didn't come back. Tanuvasa was accused of being part of a highly-publicized vehicle theft ring that had stolen hundreds of cars. He faced two felony charges, of vehicle theft and burglary.

Tanuvasa later turned himself in, but the incident contributed to mounting police frustration. A few weeks later, on May 27, the first of the string of Nixle alerts went out.

Police officials say they're pressing Corrections to take a closer look at broader procedures surrounding who is allowed into a halfway house, particularly people with felony records and a history of escape.

On June 14, public safety officials from APD and the Alaska State Troopers met commissioner Williams, and probation officers on the topic of halfway houses. Almost immediately, though stopping short of a moratorium, DOC officials started to pull back on sending pretrial inmates to halfway houses.

Since the meeting, the number of pretrial inmates in Anchorage halfway houses, facing felonies as well as misdemeanors, has dropped from 75 to 49.

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