What others say: To fight rising prison costs, Alaska must reform

  • Tuesday, June 30, 2015 4:08pm
  • Opinion

It’s time for Alaskans to take a hard look at the state’s prison system and who inhabits it.

Next fiscal year, the state of Alaska will spend $326 million on the Alaska Department of Corrections. According to figures from the department, there were 5,267 Alaskans in prison on July 1, 2014, the first day of the current fiscal year. The exact number of Alaskans in prison will fluctuate from day to day as prisoners are released and admitted, but do the math, and it works out to nearly $62,000 per inmate bed per year.

Though the Alaska Legislature has solved the state’s budget puzzle for the 2016 fiscal year, in less than seven months it will be back at work in the Capitol to address an even worse fiscal problem. As lawmakers face the issue, even the Department of Corrections will be cut.

Prison reform must be part of the state’s budget solution. Done correctly, it will save money and lead to better results for Alaskans unfortunate enough to end up in jail.

Last week, the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission met to hear a presentation from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The presentation mirrored one given to the Alaska Bar Association last month and included some alarming statistics.

Alaska’s prison population grew by 27 percent between 2005 and 2014, the third-fastest rate in the United States. Almost half the inmates currently in jail are behind bars for nonviolent offenses or because they violated parole. An alarming proportion — 28 percent at any given time — are awaiting trial. Think about it: Men and women are in jail for offenses they may not have committed. If found not guilty at trial, they will be released from jail with nothing more than a pat on the back for the days, weeks or months they’ve spent behind bars. Even as their lives are disrupted, the state is absorbing the cost.

Senate Bill 91, a bipartisan piece of legislation, would address this issue by offering more alternatives, including home arrest and electronic monitoring. It’s languishing until lawmakers return to the Capitol, and we hope the Legislature will keep it moving.

What about if a person is found guilty? Our initial reaction is harsh punishment. How many times have you heard (or said) “If you can do the crime, you can do the time?”

The problem then occurs when a person finishes their time. A majority of Alaska’s inmates, once released from jail, do something that sends them back to jail. It might be as simple as a probation violation or as dangerous as another crime.

The Criminal Justice Commission and the Pew Trusts have teamed up to put together a reform package tailored to the state’s problems, including recidivism, the process by which freed inmates commit new crimes and return to jail. We hope the Legislature and members of the public will be open to the idea that prison is not always the best solution.

To solve the problem of chronic inebriates in downtown Juneau, we’ve already turned to a housing-first approach as a new way to approach the issue. A similar approach may be needed for crime.

If Alaska’s prison population continues to rise, all Alaskans will be squeezed to pay the cost.

We simply can’t afford it.

— Juneau Empire, June 23

More in Opinion

Sens. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, left, and Robert Myers, R-North Pole, read through one of 41 amendments submitted to the state’s omnibus budget bill being debate on the floor of the Alaska State Senate on Monday, May 9, 2022. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: The Alaska Senate’s foolish gamble

“All these conservative people just spent all our money”

Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships. (logo provided)
Point of View: A few ideas for Mental Health Awareness Month

What are some things you can practice this month and subsequently apply to your life?

Alex Koplin is a founding member of Kenai Peninsula Votes. (courtesy photo)
Voices of the Peninsula: 1 candidate dined, 47 to go

By Alex Koplin Last month, I wrote a satirical piece for the… Continue reading

Smoke from the Swan Lake Fire impairs visibility on the Sterling Highway on Aug. 20, 2019. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: Alaskans should prepare for wildfire season

Several past large fire seasons followed snowy winters or unusually rainy springs

The logo of the Homer Trails Alliance.
Point of View: Connecting our community through trails

Homer is booming with housing development and the viability of long-standing trails is threatened

A copy of the State of Alaska Official Ballot for the June 11, 2022, Special Primary Election is photographed on May 2, 2022. (Peninsula Clarion staff)
How do I choose a candidate for this Special Primary Election?

You could start by making a list of your top choices with the issues they support that you care about

The Swan Lake Fire can be seen from above on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Alaska Wildland Fire Information)
Opinion: Supporting and protecting Alaskans during breakup and fire season

Our mantra is Team Alaska — we are here to help Alaskans and our communities.

Most Read