Bill aims to keep criminals from returning to jail

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at preventing criminals from repeatedly returning to jail.

The measure is part of a sweeping criminal justice reform bill sponsored by North Pole Sen. John Coghill.

The legislation will be the focus of several Senate Finance Committee meetings as lawmakers address the costs and savings contained in the bill, which aims to reduce the state’s average daily prison population.

The bill has been making its way through the state Senate for more than a year as Coghill works to implement reforms suggested by a state criminal justice commission.

According to data gathered by the commission, the state’s prison population has grown three times faster than its resident population over the past decade. In 2014, the state spent more than $327 million and housed more than 5,200 inmates. Absent reform, according to the report, Alaska will surpass its current prison-bed capacity by 2017.

Jordan Shilling, a legislative aide for Coghill, told members of the committee that reinvesting money saved by reducing the prison population into programs designed to reduce recidivism rates, is crucial for lasting change.

“The goal of this is not just to reduce costs,” Shilling said. “It’s to invest in strategies that we know are working, to reinvest in things that reduce crime.”

The Office of Management and Budget provided a proposal that would reinvest funds into pretrial programs and grants for offender programs and victims services. The office estimates the state would save $49.8 million through 2021 if it follows reforms contained in the bill and reinvests according to the plan.

According to the proposal, the state would need to invest $5.8 million into Department of Corrections’ treatment and pretrial services and parole board staffing. Another $5 million would be used for community-based treatment, prevention, re-entry and services for victims in the first year.

State spending increases to a total of $90.5 million over the next five years according to the proposal, but that money would be offset by the savings contained in the bill.

According to the proposal, the state would reduce its prison population by nearly 300 beds by next year, saving about $12.5 million. By 2018, another 1,366 beds would be emptied bumping the savings up to $20.7 million.

The committee will again take up the bill on Wednesday.

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