EDITORIAL: To fight rising prison costs, Alaska must reform system
It’s time for Alaskans to take a hard look at the state’s prison system and who inhabits it.
Next fiscal year, the state of Alaska will spend $326 million on the Alaska Department of Corrections. According to figures from the department, there were 5,267 Alaskans in prison on July 1, 2014, the first day of the current fiscal year. The exact number of Alaskans in prison will fluctuate from day to day as prisoners are released and admitted, but do the math, and it works out to nearly $62,000 per inmate bed per year.
Though the Alaska Legislature has solved the state’s budget puzzle for the 2016 fiscal year, in less than seven months it will be back at work in the Capitol to address an even worse fiscal problem. As lawmakers face the issue, even the Department of Corrections will be cut.
Prison reform must be part of the state’s budget solution. Done correctly, it will save money and lead to better results for Alaskans unfortunate enough to end up in jail.
Last week, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission met to hear a presentation from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The presentation mirrored one given to the Alaska Bar Association last month and included some alarming statistics.
Alaska’s prison population grew by 27 percent between 2005 and 2014, the third-fastest rate in the United States. Almost half the inmates currently in jail are behind bars for nonviolent offenses or because they violated parole. An alarming proportion — 28 percent at any given time — are awaiting trial. Think about it: Men and women are in jail for offenses they may not have committed. If found not guilty at trial, they will be released from jail with nothing more than a pat on the back for the days, weeks or months they’ve spent behind bars. Even as their lives are disrupted, the state is absorbing the cost.
Senate Bill 91, a bipartisan piece of legislation, would address this issue by offering more alternatives, including home arrest and electronic monitoring. It’s languishing until lawmakers return to the Capitol, and we hope the Legislature will keep it moving.
What about if a person is found guilty? Our initial reaction is harsh punishment. How many times have you heard (or said) “If you can do the crime, you can do the time?”
The problem then occurs when a person finishes their time. A majority of Alaska’s inmates, once released from jail, do something that sends them back to jail. It might be as simple as a probation violation or as dangerous as another crime.
The Criminal Justice Commission and the Pew Trusts have teamed up to put together a reform package tailored to the state’s problems, including recidivism, the process by which freed inmates commit new crimes and return to jail. We hope the Legislature and members of the public will be open to the idea that prison is not always the best solution.
To solve the problem of chronic inebriates in downtown Juneau, we’ve already turned to a housing-first approach as a new way to approach the issue. A similar approach may be needed for crime.
If Alaska’s prison population continues to rise, all Alaskans will be squeezed to pay the cost.
We simply can’t afford it.