FAIRBANKS—The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission released recommendations Thursday for a sweeping overhaul of prisons, courts and criminal justice that it estimates will save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
The commission put forward 21 recommendations designed to ease the stress on the correctional system by reducing the number of non-violent, low-level offenders behind bars, helping offenders avoid committing new crimes after release and reworking penalties for some crimes.
The commission estimates that the recommendations, if adopted by the Legislature, would reduce the prison population by 21 percent over the next decade, saving the state $421 million over that period.
The commission performed its work with the help of the data-focused Pew Charitable Trusts' Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which has done similar work for many other states.
"None of this stuff is new, these aren't brand new ideas," said Greg Razo, the commission's chairman. "What the commission has been able to do is look at what is really going on and what the science says to us about what can be done."
Razo said the current state of the prison system, with long stays and few resources for rehabilitation, isn't providing a good return on investment or making Alaska much safer.
"When 2 out of 3 people these days commit a new crime and go back to jail once they're released within three years," he said, "we're not doing our job in terms of public safety."
Razo added that the plan does not rely on releasing current inmates early but instead focuses on preventing them from returning or entering in the first place.
And in the time of tight budgets, any savings found anywhere in state government is welcome, said Sen. John Coghill, a non-voting member of the commission.
The panel was created in 2013 with the passage of Senate Bill 64, authored by Coghill and a bipartisan collection of other lawmakers keen on improving the corrections system.
The recommendations break down into a handful of categories, including reducing the number of people in prison waiting for trial, focusing prison beds on serious and violent offenders, reworking parole and probation with the goal of helping people become productive and less likely to return to prison, and improving oversight.
Reduce pretrial population
One of the major drivers of the prison population in Alaska is the quickly growing pre-trial population—people who are charged with a crime and held behind bars while their case works its way through the court. Across the board from serious felony violations to misdemeanors, Pew researchers found people were staying nearly twice as long in custody while awaiting trial than a decade ago.
Some of the recommendations include never holding some low-level, non-violent misdemeanor offenders in prison in the first place and instead issuing citations. Officers would still have the discretion to make an arrest based on the likelihood an offender will arrive in court as directed.
Other recommendations include improving pre-trial services such as electronic monitoring, private third-party custodians and a 24/7 sobriety program that focuses on changing an offender's behavior before even convicted.
Better use of prison space
Two recommendations focus on giving the corrections system greater leeway with paroling inmates to ensure eligible inmates get their parole hearings on time as well as creating a specialty parole option for long-term geriatric inmates. The research by the council finds that inmates released after age 55 are far less likely to commit new crimes.
One recommendation is to revise drug penalties to reserve the most severe penalties for high-level drug offenders, like dealers or drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.
Another recommendation is to reduce presumptive sentencing guidelines for non-sex felony offenses to pre-2005 levels, when legislators enacted longer sentences for nearly every crime. The research, the commission argues, finds little benefit for longer minimum sentences when it comes to reducing recidivism.
Parole and prisoner re-entry
Most of the recommendations focus on cutting the recidivism rate—the rate at which ex-inmates commit new crimes and return to prison—by changing how parole works as well as giving inmates better resources to find jobs and fight drug addictions.
The changes to the parole violations are designed to make punishment more clear, swift and certain, as well as to cap the total amount of time someone can face for a violation.
The other major part of the plan is to reinvest some of the savings from other programs to either create or expand existing treatment programs, like Alaska's Alcohol Safety Action Program that provides screening and treatment.
Coghill said it might be hard for some legislators to see the need of spending money on treatment, but he said if it means that they won't return and cost the system more money or hurt the public with more crimes then it's worth it.
"That $80 investment might say we never have to see them in jail again," he said. "That’s one element of it, and public safety is what we’re looking for at the end of the day."
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.