What others say: Sens. Coghill, Ellis bridging partisan divide to find solutions

  • Tuesday, October 20, 2015 3:44pm
  • Opinion

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,

Oct. 13

More in Opinion

Former Democratic state Rep. Beth Kerttula holds up a sign reading “Vote No Con Con,” during a recent rally at the Dimond Courthouse Plaza in Juneau. Opposition to a constitutional convention, which could alter the Alaska State Constitution to allow for banning abortions was a frequent topic during the protest. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Alaska Voices: A constitutional convention would be doomed to fail

Principled compromise has given way to the unyielding demands of performative politicians

(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: We’re at risk of losing our well-crafted constitution

Vote no for a constitutional convention in November.

Christina Whiting.
Point of View: Thanks to the Homer community for efforts to find and honor Duffy Murnane

The Duffy Memorial Bench Dedication was moving and healing.

Sticky notes filled out in response to the question “Why does Democracy and voting matter?” are photographed on Saturday, June 25, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Alex Koplin)
6 words to define democracy

What words would you use?

File
Opinion: The latest gun regulation bill is nothing to cheer about

The legislation resembles the timid movements of a couple of 6-month old children…

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C. in this file photo. (File)
Opinion: The Alaskans with the power to defend America’s democracy

It’s well past time to publicly refute Trump’s lie

File
Opinion: Here’s what I expect of lawmakers in a post-Roe America

I urge lawmakers to codify abortion rights at the state and federal levels.

File
Opinion: Confusion over ranked choice voting persists

Voter confusion over ballot procedures will continue

Most Read