OPINION: A step toward addressing Alaska’s appalling prison statistics

Alaska spends around $73,730 per year to incarcerate someone. That doesn’t include medical care for chronic diseases, end-of-life or emergency care. It’s four times what we spend per student each year. In 2024, we ranked the ninth most expensive prison costs in the nation.

Worse is the terrible return on our money. Our recidivism rate is the highest in the country, at higher than 61%.

Research shows the length of imprisonment doesn’t reduce crime. Rehabilitating inmates to re-integrate and support themselves and their families when they leave prison does reduce recidivism.

A key incentive for prisoners to complete rehabilitation programming is when it leads to early release on parole. Former President Trump recognized this when he signed a sweeping criminal justice overhaul in 2018 that had rare bipartisan support.

The First Step Act incentivized federal prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce recidivism by earning them 10-15 days of credit toward an earlier release for every 30 days spent in the programs. The earlier-release dates save millions in prison costs.

Since 2020, the Alaska Parole Board has been releasing 79% fewer people and holding 75% fewer hearings despite prisoners completing rehabilitation programs. That doesn’t make sense, financially or public safety-wise. It discourages prisoners from participating in programming to gain discretionary parole. I’m saying this as a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska whose career included the 1980′s and 1990′s national “tough on crime” era. That didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, has proposed SB 176. It would improve the Parole Board’s decision-making and encourage inmates to complete rehabilitation programming.


The current parole board is composed of five members appointed by the governor to serve five-year terms. There are no term limits. Four members of the current board work for or retired from the Department of Corrections (DOC).

SB 176 would expand the board to seven members and require five of them to have specific experience as:

• A physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

• A crime victim or victim’s relative.

• A drug and alcohol treatment provider or person who has experienced addiction.

• Someone who has completed felony probation or parole.

• A member of a federally recognized tribe in Alaska.

The DOC perspective is important, but it could still occupy the two non-designated positions under SB 176. The change provides broader, relevant life or work experience that would inform the board’s decisions of whether an inmate can be safely and productively paroled into a community.

Tobin’s bill would limit members to two five-year terms. People can get stuck in ruts. A term limit of 10 years would help the board stay current and still provide overlapping experience and continuity.

SB 176 would also fix how the Board decides whether to grant parole. Under the current statute, the board considers four factors:

1. Whether the inmate will obey the law and parole conditions.

2. Whether they will further their integration and rehabilitation.

3. Whether they will pose a threat to the public.

4. Whether release would diminish the seriousness of the crime.

The first three are proper considerations for the Parole Board. The last is not. SB 176 would eliminate it. Here’s why that change should be made.

The seriousness of the offense is given significance and weight at sentencing. It is the first among the factors the Legislature has established judges must consider in deciding an appropriate sentence. All the other considerations, except one, relate to the seriousness of the offense: the need for community condemnation and reaffirmation of societal norms, to deter the defendant and others, to protect the public, and the extent the offense harmed the victim or threatened public safety. Only one of the seven statutory considerations for sentencing addresses the defendant’s potential for rehabilitation.

Sentencing judges base their decisions on lots of information: sentence memorandums by the parties, a presentence investigation report by the DOC, witness testimony, a Victim Impact Statement, and a statement by the defendant. The judge must make findings and issue rulings addressing each of the statutory considerations. Based on all this, the judge decides an appropriate sentence, including whether to allow discretionary parole.


According to a brief filed by the ACLU of Alaska in the Court of Criminal Appeals last year, the parole board “often” denied discretionary parole — despite the inmate having met the three statutory considerations for rehabilitation and public safety — because the board decided parole would diminish the seriousness of the offense.

That doesn’t make sense. The sentencing judge took the seriousness of the offense into account at great length before deciding the defendant should be eligible for discretionary parole.

The Parole Board should not be substituting its judgment for that of the judiciary. The question for the parole board should be whether inmates have rehabilitated themselves such that they can be successfully re-integrated without a threat to public safety.

The Alaska Legislature should join the national bipartisan effort and provide incentives for inmates to successfully complete rehabilitation programs and re-integrate into their communities as productive, contributing members. It makes sense for public safety and to reduce costs. SB 176 is a good step in that smart direction.

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.

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Val Van Brocklin

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.