DOC prepares to clean house

The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission released a slew of recommendations Thursday aimed at improving Alaska’s justice system and cutting costs.

Formed by Senate Bill 64 in 2014, the commission is made up of 13 members including judges, law enforcement officials and legislators. If implemented, their 21 recommendations would save the state an estimated $424 million over the next decade, according to the commission’s report. The reforms focus on prioritizing harsh sentences for the most serious offenders, tweaking parole and probation practices to prevent repeat offenders, and giving more attention to recovery efforts.

Alaska Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Diane Casto said the department is looking forward to working on the reforms in conjunction with two previous reports, including a performance audit.

“These are opportunities to do our job better, and that’s what we want to do,” she said. “… I believe that the recommendations are realistic. Are they all doable? You know, some of them will take more time than others, some of them may take more resources…”

The Department of Corrections will most likely have to tweak some of the recommendations as implementation progresses, Casto said. Some will be able to be accomplished rather quickly, while others may take upwards of ten years to implement, she said.

“The change that we are talking about is really significant change and DOC is a huge organization with many layers and responsibilities,” Casto said. “The analogy I use is, turning DOC is like turning… a big ship. It’s not a real nimble organization that can turn quickly…”

Changing leadership in the state over the next ten years could also affect how quickly DOC implements changes, Casto said.

The commission heard the results of a study done in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts in earlier this fall. Researchers found the state’s imprisoned population grew by 27 percent over the last decade, almost three times faster than the resident population, and the total average daily Department of Corrections population is projected to grow from 5,095 to 6,511 over the next ten years. This growth will surpass Alaska’s prison bed capacity by 2017, according to the report. The state already spent $240 million on the Goose Creek Correctional Center, which opened in 2012.

The commission was asked to develop its recommendations with the state’s budget problem in mind, and to aim at reducing the current prison population by 15-25 percent. The commission’s report claims the recommendations would cut the current population by 21 percent by 2024.

Alaska’s recidivism rate, or the number of people who become repeat offenders and land back in prison, was found to have gone down slightly since the early 2000’s. Still, Pew’s report found that almost two thirds of released offenders return to prison within three years in the state. Several of the recommendations, such as capping the overall incarceration time for those who violate their supervision and improving treatment offerings, are aimed at reducing that rate. Casto said the department, the released inmates and the communities they live in are all responsible for supporting previous offenders to keep them from returning to prison. The recommended changes will be accomplished through cooperation with multiple facets of the state’s justice system, including those from law, public safety and the legislature, she said.

“Yes, (offenders) do need to be responsible and yes they do need to make change, but sometimes we, the DOC, have a responsibility,” Casto said. “Not sometimes, always.”

Other recommendations include changing supervision during pretrial to focus on the most high-risk offenders, emphasizing the use of citations over jail time for low-level crimes, and a push to pay better attention to the needs of crime victims. A team of executive staff will meet next week to go over the commission’s report and prioritize which recommendations to tackle first, Casto said.

 

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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