Crime & Justice

Alaska moves toward justice system overhaul with results of data analysis

Legislators on Tuesday got a first look at the results of a "data deep-dive" by Outside researchers -- data that is expected to inform a broad effort to enact unprecedented reforms of Alaska's expensive, troubled criminal justice system.

"I've been around for nearly three decades and this is the most promising systemic change," said Sen. Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat. "It's momentous and would change the arc of the budget."

Ultimately, it could put Alaska in the company of other conservative states that have abandoned the "tough on crime" approach that's been dominant for decades for an approach that emphasizes what's known in some circles as "right on crime."

Among the conclusions researchers from the Pew Charitable Trusts came to after months of analyzing data on incarceration in Alaska:

• Spending on corrections is up 60 percent over the past two decades.

• Alaska's prison population has increased 27 percent in the last decade.

• State prisons house mostly nonviolent offenders.


• More than a quarter of people sleeping in jails are pretrial detainees who haven't yet been tried or sentenced.

• The number of pretrial inmates is up 81 percent from a decade ago.

Perhaps the most striking to budget-weary legislators: If nothing changes, the prison population in Alaska is projected to grow another 27 percent by 2024, costing at least $169 million.

The researchers from the Pew Charitable Trusts presented initial results of their months-long data analysis to a meeting of the joint House and Senate judiciary committees held at the Anchorage legislative offices Tuesday.

Five researchers have been working full-time on the project in Alaska since April, the Philadelphia-based organization said.

The review is expected to provide a foundation for a series of policy recommendations by the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a 13-member board that includes judges, legislators and citizens, as well as representatives from the Department of Corrections, Public Defender Agency and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.

The commission will recommend policy reforms to lawmakers before the start of the legislative session in January. Then it's up to the Legislature to produce bills geared toward reform.

If that happens, Alaska will join more than two dozen states that have enacted comprehensive criminal justice reform in recent years. About a dozen of those have gotten help from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Alaska's reform effort has been in the works for years.

Pew offered its help years ago. Then-Gov. Sean Parnell refused to accept the offer, said Ellis.

As soon as Gov. Bill Walker took office, Ellis and Sen. John Coghill, a Republican from North Pole, approached him about partnering with the organization.

"He didn't actually cut me off, but he abbreviated my pitch," Ellis said. "He said, 'I'm on board.'"

So far, the effort's emphasis on cost savings has attracted rare bipartisan support, Ellis said.

"This is a magic moment," he said. "This is something that doesn't often occur."

Tuesday's hearing featured testimony from officials visiting from some deep red states -- Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and Utah -- that have undertaken their own major justice reform measures with Pew Charitable Trusts' assistance.

Tuesday's hearing also included new details on a review of inmate safety ordered by Walker earlier this month after a series of high-profile incidents in which Alaskans died in state custody.

Dean Williams, a special assistant to the governor, is charged with leading the inmate safety review.


Williams told the panel he will review suicides, homicides and natural deaths in state correctional facilities over the past two years, as well as the high-profile 2012 suicide of accused serial killer Israel Keyes in an Anchorage jail.

He told the committee he planned to examine surveillance tapes, medical files and other materials that have been off-limits to the public -- and even legislators.

Williams said he expects to deliver a report to the governor in two to three months, with conclusions eventually to be released to the public.

He described the review as a fact-finding mission to determine what went wrong and how it could be fixed.

"If you're going to have the trust of the public, you've got to tell the truth," he said.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.