As partisan politics become more ingrained in American political life, not only in Washington, D.C., but in Juneau and even municipal government, it’s getting harder to find areas of genuine bipartisan collaboration. But there’s at least one such good example here in Alaska, and it comes at a time when the state could use as much of it as possible. Best of all, it’s tackling a big cost sink for the state — the overcrowded corrections system.
Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, and Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, are the leaders of the Alaska Senate majority and minority caucuses, respectively. On the hallmark issues being debated in the capitol, such as oil and gas taxes, health care and education, the two aren’t often in agreement.
But on corrections reform, they’ve found a surprising amount of common ground, turning what is often a bitterly divided issue in other states into an opportunity to reduce system costs and provide for better outcomes.
Cost reduction is a big motivator to find a better solution for Alaska’s prison population. The Department of Corrections budget last year was $327 million, a substantial chunk of the state operating budget that’s in danger of growing even larger given the increasing number of inmates. Many of the state’s correctional facilities are near capacity, and with the state’s budget already $3.7 billion in the red, available funds for building new prisons are nonexistent.
Hearteningly, Sens. Coghill and Ellis not only recognize the corrections budget issue, they’ve turned to the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trust for answers. The group has helped other states such as Texas deal with problems akin to Alaska’s, to a fair degree of success. Emphasizing reforms such as drug treatment and mental health programs, as well as other alternatives to prison, the trust says the reforms in Texas have not only helped cut incarcerated populations — three prisons in the state are on track to close due to reduced need for inmate accommodations — but also recidivism and overall crime rates.
That’s great news for Alaska, as state mental health trust officials say 60 percent of the state’s inmates are being treated in the mental health system.
Additionally, Sen. Coghill has expressed interest in giving responsibility on some matters to tribal courts where appropriate, to emphasize community justice and give residents in communities away from population centers a stake in the outcome of legal matters. While tribal courts won’t necessarily be the best option in all cases, making the process of rehabilitation more of a community effort than a top-down imposition by a justice system that can seem distant is a laudable goal.
Sens. Coghill and Ellis have co-sponsored a justice reform omnibus bill, Senate Bill 91, that would incorporate recommendations from the Pew trust and work done by state officials. In the furor over items such as Medicaid expansion, the state budget and marijuana regulations, SB 91 saw little movement.
But with diligent work, the senators can keep the ball rolling on corrections reform. Either reducing the state’s recidivism rate and prison population or saving money that could help ease the state budget gap would be welcome — to be able to do both with one bill would be a major accomplishment.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,