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Alaska halfway house population falls as corrections officials try to tamp down walkaways

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: August 7, 2016
  • Published August 7, 2016

Reacting to criticism that too many halfway house residents have walked away from their confines, state corrections officials are placing fewer inmates there and are asking prosecutors and cops to report when a halfway house resident is under investigation for a crime — even if charges haven't been filed.

The number of inmates in the state's eight low-security, privately run halfway houses has dropped by 300 people — nearly 40 percent — since 2013. At the end of July, the population was the lowest it's been in years, which corrections officials said was the result of new policies keeping out inmates of halfway houses who they say could be a higher risk of escaping.

At the same time, Department of Corrections officials say concern about halfway house escapes may be overblown — their records show the number of walkaways has changed little in recent years and has always been a tiny fraction of the total halfway house population. And with fewer people in halfway houses, the total number of walkaways has also declined, the officials said.

But the corrections department has come under pressure from prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, notably the Anchorage Police Department, which embarked on a campaign to regularly alert the public to walkaways through text broadcasts from its messaging system.

Among the latest: Webster Leavitt, 33, a pretrial detainee held on charges that he punched a pregnant woman, was observed July 23 on a closed-circuit camera "running from behind the building at 130 Cordova St.," the Cordova Center halfway house, and was charged with kicking out a window there and escaping.

The shift in policy means more inmates are staying in prisons, which is more costly to the state. Defense attorneys questioned whether there was enough evidence of a problem to support the policy shift.

"If the state's budget is declining, and ostensibly DOC's budget is being cut, what necessity do they have to keep bodies in jails?" said Dunnington Babb, deputy public defender for the criminal division of the state Public Defender Agency.

Corey Allen-Young, a DOC spokesman, said the corrections department is sensitive to public safety concerns about walkaways. He said the department is examining halfway house models in other states and looking to add more treatment options or activities to give inmates more incentive to stay.

Alaska's eight halfway houses are run by private corporations. Six are managed by Florida-based GEO Group Inc., one of the nation's largest for-profit prison operators. The Glenwood Center in Anchorage is managed by a Las Vegas-based private nonprofit corporation, TJM Western, and Glacier Manor in Juneau is run by a private local nonprofit, Gastineau Human Services.

The state cut GEO Group's contract earlier this year from $10.8 million to $7.7 million, which amounted to a reduction of 100 beds at Cordova Center.

"We understand the DOC is reviewing its overall community reentry programs, and we look forward to continuing to strengthen our partnership with the State of Alaska and maximizing the use of our reentry centers and services across the state, which play an important role in helping offenders reintegrate into their communities," GEO Group said in a statement emailed by a spokesman.

In a statement announcing the cut, officials described "ongoing safety concerns," which Allen-Young said was tied to addiction issues and drugs finding their way into the halfway houses.

Last fall, corrections officials started conducting interviews with people who walked away from halfway houses, technically classified as an escape. Halfway house staff are barred from restraining people from leaving. Most inmates told corrections officials that drugs, such as the expectation of a positive drug test, were a key factor in their decision to walk away.

Reaching out to prosecutors

The term "halfway house" originally described a facility for people finishing sentences and almost ready to transition back to society. But as prison costs soared and Alaska jails became more crowded over the past two decades, minimum-security halfway houses turned into a cheaper place to hold one kind of inmate — people awaiting trial after their initial arrest and who can't make bail.

A halfway house costs the state $99 a day for each inmate, compared to $142 a day for a jail cell.

Unlike inmates who have been convicted of a crime and are serving out sentences, pretrial inmates are presumed innocent. While the U.S. and Alaska constitutions guarantee that bail shouldn't be "excessive," some defendants can't afford it, or, in increasingly rare cases, are ordered to be held at a halfway house by a judge in place of bail. Bail is a bond to ensure a released defendant shows up for court. 

When it comes to the placement of inmates, an office within the DOC largely makes the decisions. Halfway house placements have been a growing source of strife between the DOC and other law enforcement agencies, notably the Anchorage Police Department. 

On July 12, the corrections department sent a memo to enlist district attorneys, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies around the state in helping to identify potentially troublesome inmates.

"DOC exercises great care in making the initial placement, and the decision is based on all currently available information," Bruce Busby, director of institutions at the DOC, wrote in the letter. "However, new information may come to light at a later date (e.g. new criminal investigations or charges, or evidence of drug or alcohol abuse) that makes the placement become unreasonable."

The memo listed the name and phone number of the corrections officer charged with making decisions about halfway house placements. Busby asked recipients to post the memo in a "prominent location" so staff could read it.

Busby's memo came about a month after a June 14 meeting between Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams and officials with the Anchorage Police Department and Alaska State Troopers. Since late May, through its Nixle messaging system, Anchorage police have been publicizing walkaways. The campaign started not long after Tagaloa Tanuvasa, a man facing felony charges in connection with a high-profile Anchorage vehicle theft ring, walked away from Cordova Center.

Declining numbers

After the June meeting with law enforcement, DOC officials have drawn down the number of halfway house inmates who have not yet gone to trial, seen by law enforcement officials as more volatile and likely to escape because they have not yet received a sentence. People awaiting trial on felony charges, like Tanuvasa, have been barred from halfway houses altogether. Allen-Young said that added scrutiny is being applied to inmates facing misdemeanor charges.

In three years, the state's overall halfway house population has plummeted, from 772 people to 471 people. It dropped by about 100 in the past month and a half.

The number of pretrial detainees has declined sharply as well. In 2013, there were 255 people awaiting trial on both felony and misdemeanor charges in Alaska halfway houses. That number dropped to 117 on June 15, and by July 31, it was 61, according to Allen-Young.

DOC has not collected data on whether pretrial inmates are more likely to walk away from halfway houses or even commit new crimes, and Babb, the public defender, questioned the reasoning.

"I don't know what the rationale that makes them more likely to walk away," Babb said. "Presentenced, they have optimism."

But police and corrections officials both say that pretrial inmates are considered a higher risk.  

Allen-Young said Busby's memo was an effort to gather more information about inmates before making placement decisions. A small office within the Department of Corrections uses a one-page checklist to decide whether or not someone qualifies for a halfway house, but there are other layers of discretion.

Anchorage District Attorney Clint Campion said this week that as far as he was aware, no one in his office had contacted the DOC to communicate more information about a case. He said he expected that would take a "culture change."

Campion joined the agency in 2008, and said he never would have thought that prosecutors would have the ability to influence classification decisions.

"That's not part of our role," Campion added.

Babb voiced discomfort with the idea.

"It's always better from my perspective that (defense) counsel know what's going on when law enforcement or the department is making accusations," Babb said.

Pending investigation

The appeal to prosecutors to relay "new information" about an investigation might have prevented one recent walkaway from ever being placed in the halfway house, records show.

On March 24, near the Anchorage Correctional Complex, police arrested 46-year-old Richard Robinson for violating his parole. The arrest came a few hours after Robinson, who was completing a sentence for a 2011 felony theft conviction, was accused of raping a woman in broad daylight near Third Avenue and Ingra Street.

The woman was intoxicated and barely conscious, and a witness reported the incident to police, according to a charging document in the case. The woman later identified Robinson and told investigators she did not consent to sex.  

A person facing a felony charge of sexual violence is not supposed to qualify for a halfway house. But Robinson had not been charged with a crime at that point — he had gone back to jail for violating parole. The corrections department did not know Robinson was being investigated for rape. On May 13, Robinson was moved to the Parkview Center, a halfway house a few blocks from Denali Montessori Elementary and city parks.

On May 27, with the rape investigation still ongoing, Robinson returned from a job search and probation officers found an "unknown object" on him, according to a criminal complaint. Halfway house employees aren't allowed to do strip searches, and someone called DOC to do one instead.

But while the probation officer was on the phone with the corrections department, Robinson "got up and walked away from the halfway house," according to an affidavit in the case.

Robinson, with a lengthy criminal history, returned to custody four days later. He had a history of drug and DUI charges, as well as parole violations and not checking in with his probation officer. It was his third time leaving a halfway house, including an escape earlier in 2015.

An attorney for Robinson did not return an email seeking comment.

Campion couldn't say whether he believed Robinson should have qualified for a halfway house. But he said his office might have accelerated its decision on whether to charge Robinson had prosecutors known that he was being moved to a minimum-security facility.

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