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Alaska lawmakers’ new crime bill would lock up more people, cost up to $4 million a year

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: November 1, 2017
  • Published November 1, 2017

Spring Creek Correctional Center, in Seward, holds hundreds of Alaska prisoners. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

JUNEAU — Being tough on crime comes at a price.

The Alaska House Finance Committee heard that message Wednesday, when members learned that legislation to toughen the state's criminal laws could produce more than $4 million a year in added prison costs.

The news came from Gov. Bill Walker's administration in a "fiscal note," or a written estimate of the potential costs of passing a bill.

The Department of Corrections, at the committee's hearing in Juneau, said that Senate Bill 54 — legislation aimed at reversing parts of last year's criminal justice overhaul, Senate Bill 91 — could fill an extra 285 beds in state jails and prisons, on a yearly basis.

It costs the corrections department $41.49 a day for each extra prisoner, which means the total yearly price tag for SB 54 could be as much as $4.3 million. That's the upper limit of the corrections department's estimate; the lower limit is 108 extra prisoners, at a cost of $1.6 million a year.

Those costs represent a significant chunk of the roughly $400 million that the original criminal justice overhaul, SB 91, was projected to save over the next decade.

The savings, in large part, were supposed to come from reducing prison sentences and instead relying on alternatives, like stronger supervision for people out on bail and more robust probation and parole programs.

SB 91's supporters cited research that says those alternatives are both cheaper and more effective at reducing the likelihood a person released from prison will commit another crime.

But critics of the legislation — including some state lawmakers — have tied the sentencing reductions to perceptions of increasing crime in Anchorage. That's in spite of state data that show rates of most types of crime decreasing in the first six months after SB 91 went into effect.

Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, right, says she’s willing to pay for public safety. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News)

One legislative supporter of tougher sentences, Anchorage Republican Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, said she's willing to pay for the changes contained in SB 54. House members, in their current special legislative session in Juneau, have been debating how far those revisions should go.

"Public safety is one of the most essential purposes of government. I mean, that's one of the reasons government exists," LeDoux, part of the leadership of the House's largely Democratic majority, said in an interview Wednesday. "It's worth paying for."

LeDoux spoke with a reporter on a bench outside the House Finance Committee meeting, where members peppered corrections department staff with questions about the projections.

The format of the projections frustrated some lawmakers, because rather than predicting a specific cost for the legislation, the corrections department said the cost of SB 54 is "indeterminate."

"We need to know what government's costing," said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara.

Rep. Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage, chimed in on Twitter, writing that "the most frustrating thing to see on a fiscal note is 0 or 'indeterminate.' " He punctuated that observation with a shoulder-shrugging emoticon: "¯\_(ツ)_/¯."

While the corrections department didn't provide specific projections, it did give a range of possible costs to the state — from $1.6 million to $4.3 million — depending on how many extra people end up in prison because of SB 54.

The corrections department used its own data from its 2015 prison population to come up with those projections, said April Wilkerson, the state official who made them.

The estimates are also broken down into sections for each statutory change within the bill. Allowing up to a year of jail time for first-time, low-level felonies — rather than limiting penalties to probation — could add between 108 and 163 people to state prisons, costing between $1.6 million and $2.5 million.

Allowing up to five days of prison time for disorderly conduct — up from the current maximum of one day — could add between zero and seven people to state prisons, at an annual cost of up to $100,000.

The projections were officially declared to be "indeterminate" because the corrections department's data isn't sufficient to say precisely what the legislation's impact will be, Wilkerson said in a phone interview. The law also gives judges flexibility in imposing sentences, she added.

"What the courts do with that discretion, we're not sure yet," Wilkerson said.

The debate surrounding the projections reflects a tension between public safety and cost, according to North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, who sponsored SB 54 and SB 91, last year's criminal justice overhaul.

But what's not being said, Coghill added, is that reversing provisions in last year's overhaul risks costing the state more money without improving public safety. That's because research has shown that longer prison sentences don't affect a criminal's likelihood of re-offending.

Giving up some of the savings from the criminal justice overhaul, Coghill added, could also make it harder for lawmakers to find cash to pay for the programs being used as alternatives to prison.

"We'll call it a squeeze," he said. "Because if you use it in one place, you can't take it and use it somewhere else."

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