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Lawmakers ask for big savings from justice reform effort

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 8, 2015

A group of Republican legislative leaders said Tuesday that it wants to examine reforms to Alaska's justice system that could cut the state's prison population by 25 percent, reversing the trend of future growth.

A letter to the state's criminal justice commission Tuesday signed by the five Republicans follows a request earlier this year by House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Gov. Bill Walker that the commission propose money-saving reforms in advance of the 2016 legislative session, where lawmakers are expected to grapple with a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.

The commission, which includes judges, legislators and citizens, as well as representatives from the state corrections department and the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, is getting technical help from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a national nonprofit with offices in Philadelphia and Washington.

The state corrections department's $280 million annual budget makes it one of the largest agencies in state government. Unless changes are made, the state's prison population is expected to increase 27 percent by 2024, with additional costs of at least $169 million.

In the letter, Meyer, Chenault and three other Republican legislative leaders asked the justice commission to report back to lawmakers in December with policy options that would hit three different targets: averting all future prison growth; averting all future prison growth and cutting the current prison population by 15 percent; and averting all future prison growth and cutting the current prison population by 25 percent.

"Prison beds are expensive and should be reserved for those who have committed the most serious crimes and who pose the greatest risk to our communities," said the letter, signed by Meyer; Chenault; Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River; Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake; and Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks.

MacKinnon, Neuman, and Thompson are three of the four co-chairs of the finance committees in the Alaska House and Senate. The timeline for reviewing the letter was too short for the fourth co-chair, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, to feel comfortable signing it, one of Kelly's staff members said.

The letter comes the same day as the release of a report showing a 20 percent increase in the population of the state's prison system between 2005 and 2014.

The report, released by the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Center at University of Alaska Anchorage, said the population grew to 5,082 from 4,231.

The population of women in prison grew more than 50 percent over the same period, to 593 in 2014 from 383 in 2005. And much of the overall growth stemmed from an increase in the number of people in jail who are awaiting trial, rather than those who have been convicted of crimes.

The pretrial population nearly doubled to 1,692 in 2014 from 883 in 2005, while the post-conviction population increased by just 1 percent, to 3,390 from 3,348, the report said. The report did not explore why that discrepancy exists.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who's been leading the Legislature's efforts on criminal justice reform, said the growth in the pretrial population is a problem that's "huge and not easily solved." The trend, he added, appears to be related to the length of time that pretrial inmates are jailed and the speed at which they can be put on trial, he said, among other factors.

"That is going to be one of the big problems to solve," he said.

Jerzy Shedlock contributed to this report.

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