Alaska News

Senators introduce plan to save money by reducing jail population

Two senators from opposite sides of the political spectrum jointly introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at reforming Alaska's expensive, overburdened "revolving door" of a correctional system.

Modeled on an approach that found success reducing prison overcrowding in Texas, Senate Bill 91 would create more ways for Alaskans to serve sentences for nonviolent crimes outside cells.

"Other states have had success getting people out of expensive hard-bed prisons and saving those for rapists and murderers," said Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. He and Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, are the bill's co-sponsors.

The problem, they say, is that despite the construction of a $250 million prison in 2012, Alaska prisons are bursting at the seams -- running at 101 percent of capacity as of January, according to a task force report.

If Alaska doesn't halt the growth in its prisoner population, it will need to build another prison or resume the practice of sending inmates to jails in the Lower 48 to serve their sentences.

The state can't afford that.

A report by a recidivism task force released earlier this year put it bluntly: "the state cannot afford to continue on with past criminal justice practices that produced such a high recidivism rate."


The majority of people occupying Alaska's jail cells -- 64 percent -- are nonviolent offenders. And nearly half of prisoners are "pre-trial," meaning they are waiting for their cases to be resolved but can't make bail conditions. Probation and parole costs just $7.32 a day, far less than incarceration in a cell.

The bill calls for an expansion of electronic monitoring, more opportunities to earn "good time" toward completing a sentence while on probation or parole, and caps on the amount of time people would spend in jail for violating their probation.

According to the Department of Corrections, the daily cost of incarcerating an inmate in a jail cell is $158.67, compared to $85.18 a day for a stay at a halfway house and $21 a day for electronic monitoring.

Technical probation violations and pre-trial inmates who haven't yet been found guilty of a crime were found to be two of the biggest causes of the ballooning prison population.

"There are 800 people, the DOC tells us, that are back in jail because they had a technical violation of their probation or parole," Ellis said. "We think there's a better way."

Other aspects of the bill include the possibility of felony DUI offenders earning back limited driver's licenses and more discretion for judges in issuing probation sentences.

That part of the bill, Ellis said, is aimed at helping people return to work and family life after serving their sentences.

The corrections reform efforts bring together two legislators with very different political philosophies.

Ellis said he jumped into criminal justice reform because he was tired of seeing state dollars going to jails rather than schools.

"I was just frustrated we had to keep building prisons," Ellis said.

He was intrigued by an approach called "Right on Crime" that has been credited with helping the deep-red, tough-on-crime state of Texas reduce its prison population by 20 percent by making reforms to shift low-level inmates out of jails.

It has been championed by boldface conservatives like Newt Gingrich and tax reform advocate Grover Norquist.

"I would not normally be agreeing with Newt Gingrich or Grover Norquist, but I agreed with every single one of the Smart on Crime principles," Ellis said. "It was an epiphany."

Coghill said that over his years in the Legislature he'd come to feel that some of the 'tough on crime' reforms were no longer working.

"I'd go back home and see people who were felons, and there's no avenue for them to change," he said. "If we make everyone a felon what are the avenues to get out, if ever? If someone had a drug charge at 21 and by 28 they've totally changed their life around but have lost their driver's license for life -- have we really done the right thing there?"

Coghill says he wants criminals to be held accountable -- just in a smarter way.

The two say mutual respect for each other has allowed the collaboration.


In the midst of a budget crisis, the time is ripe to convince their colleagues that they can save the state money through the reforms.

"There's some urgency," Ellis 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.