Criminal justice overhaul costs, savings unclear

JUNEAU — A bill to overhaul the criminal justice system advanced in the Alaska Senate on Tuesday, though questions remain about how much money it will save the state.

A legislative fiscal analyst said estimates of savings to the Department of Corrections are speculative and rely on assumptions.

Sponsor Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, modeled the bill after a Justice Reinvestment Report commissioned by the legislature and released in 2015. That report estimated $424 million in savings, primarily through reducing the prison population by 21 percent by 2024.

State Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, quizzed Legislative Finance Division fiscal analyst Kelly Cunningham over savings estimates during his committee’s final hearing on the bill.

The department projected that it would need more than $3.6 million in its fiscal year 2017 budget request to deal with changes in sentencing, probation, parole and bail statutes, according to a fiscal note it attached to the bill. The department estimated that a new pretrial services program outlined in the bill will require up to 125 new positions, including probation officers.

The department also, however, projected reducing the prison population by more than 1,300 inmates by fiscal year 2017, saving more than $25 million.

Cunningham said it is difficult to calculate a specific amount of money saved through keeping people out of jail or holding fewer hearings. “I think it’s rather speculative at this point,” Cunningham told the committee.

The state’s Department of Health and Social Services also attached several fiscal projections to the bill including one that estimated $41,000 a year in savings from removing drug felons from public assistance programs, like day care assistance, or Alaska’s food stamps program, if they fail or refuse to take drug tests.

Despite questions about the finances behind the bill, representatives from the state departments of Law, Public Safety and Corrections said they supported the bill and would continue to work with Coghill to amend the bill as it continues to move through the committee process.

Before he moved the bill on to the next committee, Stoltze said he was concerned that emptying the state’s jails could have a negative effect on Alaskans.

“For all the good of a fair, smarter system, there are going to be people that are going to be released that are a danger. You can’t release that many people and not have that be the case,” Stoltze said.

The bill is scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Wednesday.

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