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Planning for the future of the Alaska corrections system

  • Author: Billy Houser
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 14
  • Published March 14

The Anchorage jail, Friday, January 8, 2016.

Reporting of “cost of incarceration” data is very misleading when comparing Alaska to other states, which is what the state continuously does. This dollar figure is achieved by taking the total Department of Corrections budget for a year and dividing it by the total number of prisoner bed days. From a business standpoint, it seems quite simple, but it is misleading. Other states are only looking at what it costs to house an inmate in a prison and supervise them on probation and parole. It does not include any of the pretrial costs and housing, which are borne by the local counties and municipalities, which pay the costs for misdemeanants and unsentenced prisoners.

Alaska is one of five states that has what is called a unified correction system. The other four states do not have the expensive transportation and infrastructure issues that plague Alaska.

Before statehood, Alaska was a federal territory and fell under federal jurisdiction. The federal correctional system is a unified corrections system, consisting of the U.S. Marshals and Federal Bureau of Prisons. It was designed to bring law and order to unincorporated areas and communities, where they did not have the tax base and infrastructure to provide those services. Alaska continued with this system after statehood. Even now, this many years after statehood, Alaska communities and boroughs still do not have the tax base and infrastructure to provide local, community-based law enforcement and correctional services. Alaska will have to continue with this model until some time in the future, when the local community tax bases and infrastructure improve to the point where most of our boroughs and municipalities become unified home-rule local governments that can support their own law enforcement and correctional services.

The Alaska Department of Corrections is responsible for the care and housing of a person from arraignment through discharge from their sentence, which includes probation and parole. Because state-operated correctional facilities are limited in number and frequently long distances apart, the Alaska Department of Corrections contracts with communities around the state to temporarily house and care for prisoners. The lengths of time that they can be held at these community jails is determined by American Correctional Association Jail Standards, which are based upon facility design and staffing. This limits the amount of time that a prisoner can be held at many of these community jails to only several weeks before they must be transported to a state facility that meets the Jail Standards.

The Alaska State Troopers are responsible for transporting these prisoners back and forth from community jails to a state-operated correctional facility, until the prisoners have been sentenced. The cost of transportation of prisoners for the Alaska State Troopers during any given year is in excess of $6 million. While transporting prisoners, troopers are not engaged in other active law enforcement duties. The Alaska Department of Corrections’ transportation cost for returning prisoners to their place of arrest, after serving their sentences and release, is in excess of $4 million in any given year.

Past administrations have continued to address the cost of incarceration by contracting out of state for housing of inmates, claiming that it is cheaper per day to house them. The costs cited for privatization are misleading, as the state is paying the contractor basically for lodging and meals. None of the transportation costs, medical costs, probation and parole costs, or other overhead costs that would remain are factored into the daily cost per day of incarceration for an out-of-state contract bed. Money paid in wages to the contractor’s employees does not remain in Alaska. Nor does contracting out of state take into consideration the social impacts to the inmates and their families. Outside private correctional housing is nothing but a short-term solution to an overcrowding issue.

A much better solution to the overcrowding issues and budgeting would be to plan for the future by expanding the community jail facilities and bringing them up to the standard where more prisoners can be housed and held for as long as six months. This would provide more jail beds and provide a dramatic cost savings over time with prisoner transportation costs, not to mention allowing Alaska State Troopers to engage in active law enforcement instead of prisoner transportation. Further savings could be achieved by aggressive use of electronic monitoring programs in these rural communities for low-risk prisoners who are serving a portion of their sentence. Currently, the only community jail in Alaska designed and staffed to hold prisoners for six months or longer is the Kodiak community jail.

Upgrading community jails would provide the boroughs and municipalities around the state with some of the infrastructure needed to provide a service that has fallen upon the state. It would go a long way toward improving public safety. It would also help build the base for communities to take control of their public safety in the future.

Billy Houser spent 19 years working for the Alaska Department of Corrections. He served as a Correctional Officer; as the District Supervisor for Probation and Parole; as the Director of Probation and Parole; as the acting Director of the Parole Board; and as the program manager for Community Residential Centers, electronic monitoring programs and the Community Jail program. He lives in Chugiak.

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