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Courts won’t allow criminal justice amendments to overfill prisons

  • Author: Tara Rich
  • Updated: November 3
  • Published November 3

With the State House debating Senate Bill 54 and the broader effort to reduce recidivism and improve our state's criminal justice system, there is one point nobody seems to want to face: If the House hangs any more sentencing rollbacks on Senate Bill 54, Alaska will blow right past court-imposed caps on its prison population.

The caps on the prison population were originally established as a part of the settlement of a case challenging the overcrowding in Alaska's prisons—Cleary v. Smith. The lawsuit resulted in the court establishing calculations for caps in each facility based on the U.S. Constitution's minimum standards for prison overcrowding.

Although the Cleary Settlement Agreement is no longer directly enforceable, its methodology to determine the constitutional limits of overcrowding in Alaska's prisons would be the standard used in any legal challenge today.

Numbers from last month show Alaska's prison population is at 93.6 percent of the population caps as calculated by the Alaska Department of Corrections. The DOC caps include the questionable use of beds in gymnasiums, areas reserved for outdoor exercise, and day rooms that were specifically excluded under Cleary. The average population throughout the month of October was 4,365, with the overall population cap of 4,838.

Goose Creek Correctional Center Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Under Cleary, if the Department exceeded those caps, it had to take steps to reduce the prison population through early release and parole. There were special provisions for emergency capacity, given the fluctuation of the prison population. But under no circumstances could any facility exceed the emergency capacity for ten consecutive days. Alaska's entire prison system is currently over 90 percent of even those emergency standards and the Fairbanks Correctional Center has exceeded its emergency capacity every single day in October.  The Anchorage Correctional Center and Anvil Mountain Correctional Center each exceeded their emergency capacity for 7 and 12 days in October, respectively.

If SB 54 is passed in its current form, using DOC's own estimates of population growth, it will exceed the statewide population caps. This does not include the additional people that would be incarcerated under new amendments made to SB 54 in the House Judiciary Committee that DOC has not yet calculated. This also does not include normal population fluctuation, which tends to grow in the colder months.

Shipping inmates out of state does not avert these costs—with a $2,000 per prisoner round trip for transportation in addition to the per diem costs. Alaska would just be exporting millions of Alaska's general fund dollars every year to prop up another state's economy while paying increased travel costs ourselves.

While the legislature walks back criminal justice reform efforts with each change, they must be careful not to miss the forest for the trees. One way or another, overcrowded prisons will not be allowed. If the legislative branch overreaches by incarcerating more Alaskans, courts will mandate either opening new prisons, or releasing inmates. The legislature will not be allowed some magical third option where they get to stack prisoners like cord wood in closets at no additional cost to the state.

In the House Finance Committee this week it was revealed that the Department of Corrections projects an additional $4.3 million in additional costs just from the daily expenses of more prisoners in their system.

Then in testimony, Commissioner of Corrections Dean Williams stated Wednesday that if the population caps are exceeded, reopening the Palmer Correctional Center would be necessary. The state funding required to run that facility before it was closed in 2016 was about $13 million.

We're already at over $17 million in increased spending before the House made their first amendment to increase incarceration.

Here is the kicker: even opening the Palmer Correctional Facility doesn't solve the problem. Further rollbacks to SB 91 some in the legislature are pushing for would cause the prison population to easily and quickly exceed the 500-bed capacity in Palmer. That means another prison the size of the Goose Creek Correctional Facility will be needed, at a similar $240 million price tag to construct, and millions more to staff and operate each year.

Alaskans deserve to feel safe and they can no longer afford to spend more and get less from their criminal justice system. If lawmakers want to lock up more Alaskans, voters deserve to be told honestly what those costs are and how they will be asked to pay for them before the Legislature sends them this bill.

Tara Rich serves at the legal and policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska. She is a graduate of Skyview High School in Soldotna,  earned bachelor's degree at Georgetown University, a master's degree in Comparative Constitutional Law from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, and went to law school at Tulane University.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com.  

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