JUNEAU — Alaska is now spending more on prisons than its state university, a reversal of the state’s longtime practice, and the gap would widen under a draft budget being considered by the state legislature.
Since 2015, when adjusted for inflation, Alaska has cut by 22.4% the amount it spends on the operations of all state agencies combined. The Alaska Department of Corrections is the only agency whose inflation-adjusted budget has grown during that period.
Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, called the current situation “sad.”
Bishop is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which on Thursday held a hearing that questioned whether the Legislature and governor have reached the limit of budget cuts they can make without significant changes to state law.
Though state spending (not including the Permanent Fund Dividend) has declined by almost half from its peak in 2015, most reductions came early in that period. The cuts of the past two years have been almost entirely erased by inflation and other annual cost increases.
“We have had significant budget reductions, but it was previous to 2018. Since then, we’ve struggled and haven’t made much forward progress,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka and the other co-chairman of the finance committee.
The budgets for the University of Alaska and the state prison system illustrate the problems now faced by the Legislature and governor.
In 2019, the governor signed an agreement with the University of Alaska Board of Regents that called for three years of budget cuts. Though the Alaska Legislature was not party to the agreement, it has followed it so far.
At the time, the university system received $327 million from the portion of the budget paid for with revenue from the Permanent Fund and taxes. In the budget under consideration now by the Legislature, the university is slated to receive just $257 million.
One month before signing the university agreement, Dunleavy signed a bill that rolled back prior prison reform legislation. That prior legislation, known as Senate Bill 91, had encouraged alternatives to prison, such as electronic monitoring, halfway houses and supervised release.
SB 91 reduced prison costs, but many Alaskans believed it was contributing to an increase in property crime and pushed for its repeal. Since then, the budget of the Alaska Department of Corrections has grown from $291 million in 2019 to $345 million in the plan now being considered by the Legislature.
Much of that increase is due to increases in spending on inmate healthcare and rehabilitation, budget documents show. Department officials told a legislative panel last month that 65% of Alaska’s prison inmates are mentally ill, 80% have some kind of substance abuse disorder, and 65% have reported some kind of traumatic brain injury. Almost one in four inmates is positive for Hepatitis C.
Several hundred inmates were released from custody to relieve prison crowding during COVID-19, but the department now projects a continued rise in the state’s prison population, estimating that by June 2025, more than 4,900 Alaskans will be in prison.
As of February, more than half of the state’s prison population consisted of people who were awaiting trial, not those who had been sentenced.
“Whether it’s a holdup of not adequate representation, either public defenders or (district attorneys) or somewhere in that bottleneck, we’ve got to figure out what’s the holdup of the pretrial,” said Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla and chairman of the subcommittee in charge of the Department of Corrections budget.
He believes Senate Bill 91 was poorly implemented, and because of that, Alaskans wanted a repeal even if it costs more.
“I think that was just what our folks wanted. They wanted a repeal of 91,” he said.