FAIRBANKS — Alaska convicts have been less likely to reoffend in recent years and more likely to complete in-prison substance abuse treatment programs, state officials told lawmakers on Monday.
Alaska Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Ron Taylor told the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee at a hearing in Fairbanks that the corrections system is making strides to reduce recidivism, but he said there’s more work to be done when it comes to handling and housing the state’s growing prison population.
Recidivism rates dropped to 63.5 percent of offenders during the three years after release, down from 66 percent in 2007. It’s a small drop, but good news because recidivism is one of the biggest factors in Alaska’s growing prison population, which is looming over the state’s budget.
As it currently stands, the Alaska corrections system is expected to have more inmates than beds by 2016 and be over capacity by 769 inmates by 2020, even with the opening of the 1,536-bed Goose Creek Correctional Center in 2012.
Taylor said the state began to seriously look at recidivism rates with the start of the 2007 report and worked to increase the availability of in-prison treatment as well as provide better services for inmates once they are released. That work has paid off, he said and the completion rates for in-prison substance abuse treatment rose to 65 percent in 2013, up from 45 percent in 2010.
“About half of our admissions and new admissions was related to probation and parole violations. The better job we do with those guys on probation and parole, making them successful and really focusing in on making them successful, the less likely they’re going to come back into that three-year period of time,” he said. “So what you will see for ’11, ’12 and ’13 is a continuing decrease in our recidivism rate.”
When asked what the Department of Corrections plans to do in 2020, Taylor said he hopes that programs will reduce the growth of the prison population, but added that new advances in electronic monitoring and half-way houses will provide a more affordable option for non-violent and low-risk offenders.
“There’s a combination of things that we’re looking at if it does come to that,” he said. “We’re certainly hoping that the things we’ve put in place will not lead into that right away. We are looking at expanding our community options such as our half-way houses and as well as electronic monitoring. If we have to, we’ll look at establishing an out-of-state contract (where inmates are housed in Outside prisons), but that’s not going to be something that’s going to be a first resort.”
Options like electronic monitoring can be done at just the fraction of the cost of housing an inmate, he said. Housing an inmate costs about $146 per day, he said, whereas electronic monitoring costs between $9 and $12 per day. Other programs like the intensive probation program, which has strict penalties for people who violate probation, have shown promising results in reducing recidivism but are more costly.
Expanding the intensive probation program and re-evaluating sentencing guidelines is the focus of Senate Bill 64, which was at the heart of Monday’s hearing. The bill, co-sponsored by North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, is aimed at rethinking the state’s approach to crime with the long-term goal of reducing the state’s spending on housing inmates.
Given expectations that Alaska’s inmate population will fill available prison beds, Coghill said he feels it’s critical for this Legislature to take a serious look at crime.
“The projection is we would fill up just over half of the (second) Goose Creek by 2020, which means we would almost have to have the information ready to draw up and go out to bid (for a new prison) as we speak,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I think the importance of this type of action falls upon this Legislature to figure out how to do it better.”
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.