It is a relatively simple matter to collect statements of both fact and opinion about the economic problems that are a part of today’s and tomorrow’s Alaska. Listing problems and complaints is the easy part of beginning a dialogue.
We now need to begin thinking about and outlining potential solutions to our problems and their positive and negative features. Anticipating potential outcomes is critical to implementation of successful reforms.
We all know a little about crime, criminology, crime prevention and rehabilitation of offenders. I have some real world experience with justice system management and correctional administration.
The Legislature is once again considering criminal justice and correction system reforms. Correctional issues are like ocean waves that rise and fall predictably over long periods of time, no matter who is in charge of the system. Periodic reform efforts follow prison overcrowding, episodic major events like too many deaths, escapes, injuries and real or perceived injustices in sentencing and releases of offenders, etc. Some of these problems may be due to poor correctional system management from the top down. Some are related to slow-moving prosecutorial, court and legislative actions.
Other difficulties have to do directly with inadequate available rehabilitative programs for the vast majority of the state’s correctional population. Inmates must be given both incentives and opportunities to prepare for release back into Alaska or wherever else they choose to live.
Needed are: secure programs for major criminals in our high-security lock-ups; realistic program offerings for the majority who are medium security inmates housed in medium security facilities; and pre-release programs in minimum security settings, including community based pre-release centers. Community service programs by supervised groups of inmates should be a part of this latter component by doing services to and for nearby communities and non-profits in a wide variety of jobs.
Everyone is rightly concerned about the costs of maintaining our state correctional system. More prisoners cost more money! However, Alaska’s statewide correctional system costs do not have to remain as they are now.
We are one of only a dozen or so states that manage the great majority of all arrested classes of criminals. Most state correctional systems are responsible only for sentenced felons, not for sentenced misdemeanants and certainly not for unsentenced misdemeanants or felons. Those are the responsibility of the local jurisdictions where the crimes and arrests occurred.
Our current state correctional system could be uncrowded quickly and cost much less to operate if all local and regional jurisdictions took full responsibility for their own arrested community members (both misdemeanant and felon) until trial and then delivered the sentenced felons to the state for safekeeping and rehabilitation. This policy would also encourage local jurisdictions to formulate major programmatic efforts toward crime prevention and rehabilitation strategies. When costs of locking up new arrestees and minor offenders become too great, there would be an automatic incentive for locals to lower the crime rates and keep those rates down.
Most crime is local. Most crime prevention and criminal punishment for minor crimes should be local. Perhaps we should remember that many jurisdictions in Alaska still operate their own jail facilities, such as Utqiagvik, Petersburg, Sitka, Seward, Kodiak and Valdez.
These changes would require real estate, staffing and management modifications. Eight of the current state correctional facilities – Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Mat-Su Pretrial, Nome and Bethel – might be transferred to those local/regional jurisdictions with the same managers and partial existing staff plus additional staffing from newly trained locals. The other five existing state institutions – Seward, Goose Creek (Mat-Su), Eagle River (women), Wildwood and Sutton – as well as needed out-of-state locations, would take only sentenced felons supervised by highly skilled managers and staff. The current 13 state facilities minus eight equal five remaining state facilities.
The restructured Department of Corrections should obviously be responsible for management of sentenced felon facilities, standards, policies and procedures, and should establish oversight and standards review of all local and regional jail facilities as deemed appropriate by the Legislature. A small training academy core of professionals would monitor and enforce standards compliance as well as train correctional personnel statewide. Consistency in training and standards compliance is essential.
These changes may be politically shocking at first glance. However, common sense dictates that locals can best take care of their local population’s health, safety and security, and should ethically do so. To repeat, most crime is local and, therefore, most crime prevention efforts should be local, from neighborhoods on up. The high cost of crime should incentivize local jurisdictions to prevent it. Is it right or fair that citizens of one part of our state should pay for high crime rates in another part of the state? Wouldn’t it be better to encourage all communities to take responsibility for their own crime rates and to take significant steps to lower it and keep it down? Again, most criminal activity is community based, as should be community crime prevention.
After debate, considering potential outcomes both negative and positive, maybe these changes will make sense. It may require a “phase-in” over some defined period of time, but phasing in often has a way of watering down and even washing away. Statehood wasn’t phased in.
Let’s think. Let’s discuss. Let’s finally use some logic about who is responsible for crime and its aftermath in Alaska. Let’s consider humanely and carefully a restructuring of how we prevent and manage crime and criminals in Alaska. Greater efficiency and clearly defined jurisdictional responsibilities can be less costly. If these ideas have no merit, we’ll move on. However, let’s at least think about how reforms help rather than hinder us.
Roger Endell is an Alaskan since 1960, a year after statehood. He has both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UAF and completed coursework for a Ph.D. in criminology from Florida State University. He was an Associate Professor of Justice at UAA and CEO of state correctional systems in Alaska, Kansas and Arkansas before retiring in Palmer.
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