Crime & Courts

Alaska legislative committee reviews progress on crime-reduction bill

Alaska House and Senate Judiciary Committee members met Monday in Anchorage to discuss "criminal justice reinvestment," or whether progress is being made toward the lofty goals set in a crime omnibus bill passed during the legislative session.

The sponsors of Senate Bill 64 hope the legislation will reduce recidivism in Alaska's prison system and, in turn, the costs associated with maintaining public safety. Its passage created the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission and a 24/7 Sobriety Program, and it increased the threshold for when theft becomes a felony instead of a misdemeanor from $500 to $1,000, among other changes.

Passed late in the legislative session, the bill's implementation is still in its infancy. The involved agencies -- Alaska Department of Corrections, Alaska Court System, Alaska Judicial Council and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority -- presented their progress to committee members, though many were quick to point out that much work remains.

The DOC "saw the bill as an expectation to change from the public … and we are excited to move forward along those lines," said DOC Commissioner Joseph Schmidt. Alaskans aren't "asking to lighten up or decriminalize anything"; rather, they want reductions in recidivism, he contended.

Alaska's prison population increased 97 percent -- from 2,865 inmates to 5,633 -- between 1992 and 2012, according to Pew Charitable Trusts data. And corrections spending, accounting for inflation, rose 50 percent over the same two decades. Sen. John Coghill previously said if those trends continue, the state will need a new prison by 2016. The state's newest prison, Goose Creek Correctional Complex in Palmer, opened two years ago at a cost of $240 million.

On Monday, DOC Deputy Commissioner Ron Taylor said the department has expanded an electronic monitoring program in Anchorage for first-time offenders. Currently, 53 people are participating in the program, and there are about double that number of "pending participants," he said.

SB 64 requires risk assessments for people sentenced to more than 30 days in jail. Taylor said that was already happening, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder screenings. But his department revised its recording methods to better identify at-risk inmates and what their needs are, he said.

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Nancy Meade, general counsel for the Alaska Court System, said the 24/7 Sobriety Program established by the bill just began about a month ago. The program implements twice-a-day alcohol testing on offenders and swift punishments if they test positive.

Anchorage is serving as the testing grounds for the program, with the court system and the state's Department of Health and Social Services coordinating its administration. Judges have ordered an initial group of offenders to take daily alcohol tests, but so far the sobriety program is optional.

"It has promise," Meade said, adding that the court doesn't want to pile on too many bail conditions.

Various types of offenders can choose the program, but the target audience is second-time DUI offenders, she said. Additionally, the court system is educating defense attorneys and state prosecutors about the 24/7 program and other, newer programs.

Alaska Judicial Council Executive Director Susanne DiPietro updated the judicial committee on the establishment of the Criminal Justice Commission. The council screens and nominates judicial candidates while the newly created commission, which was set to hold its inaugural meeting Monday afternoon, is tasked with reviewing, analyzing and evaluating the effects of laws and practices in Alaska's criminal justice system.

DiPietro said two part-time positions have been filled for the commission: a project attorney and a research analyst. The analyst is working on a sentencing study that examines felony offenders in 2012 and 2013. That study and others will be used to look at the cost-benefit ratio of recidivism programs.

The judicial committee is contemplating enlisting the Pew Charitable Trusts to aid in reforming corrections policies. Pew representatives shared their successes in other states before presenting a work plan for Alaska at the end of the committee's Monday hearing.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

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