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Prisoner's dilemma: 2 things Juneau is doing to reduce the jail population

Posted: March 8, 2012 - 1:10am

Walter Carpeneti, the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, called legislators — and by proxy those of use who elect them — to the carpet for a bit during his Feb. 29 State of the Judiciary address. Good for him, because someone needed to, and who better than the state’s top jurist, who has been trying and adjudicating cases in the Great Land almost continuously for more than 40 years.

Carpeneti decried the use of Alaska’s presumptive sentencing scheme, with its one-size-fits-all approach to criminals that does little to try to keep redeemable people from going to prison or from returning there once released.

“Now I’m not here to argue with the original intent of presumptive sentencing or the general policies behind it,” he told a combined session of the Senate and House of Representatives about the policies passed in Alaska in 1978. “There are good reasons to seek similar accountability for similar crimes. The old adage, ‘if you can do the crime, you can do the time,’ is appealing on a gut level, and has driven our criminal justice thinking for many years. It sounds tough; it rings true; it seems only fair. But as we now know, the idea that jail time is the fitting response to every crime — or even most crimes — has become an expensive and possibly unnecessary proposition. … Today, we have scientific corrections research that shows us what intervention strategies work best. These ‘evidence-based practices’ could not have been considered when presumptive sentencing was adopted, and as a result there is little room for them to be taken into account in the current sentencing structure. So while presumptive sentencing may have made sense over three decades ago, today it presents one of the greatest challenges to the implementation of new ‘smart justice’ principles.”

The number of Alaskans in jails and prisons jumped more than 22 percent from 1998 to 2009, according to the Alaska Justice Forum. (Alaska’s estimated population grew a bit less than 9 percent in that time frame, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Meanwhile, a large amount of these Alaskans aren’t receiving effective rehabilitation in prison, as the state’s one-year recidivism rate is 35 percent for misdemeanor offenders and 27 percent for felons. At two years, those numbers become 48 and 39 percent, respectively. Simply put, an alarming and growing number of people are going to Alaska’s prisons — many of them over and over again.

Juneau took two great steps last week towards addressing these issues. One new program looks to reduce the number of people who go to prison, and the second program, now in its fourth year, tries to make headway in reducing the number of people who return.

The Juneau Coordinated Resources Project — the creation of which was announced last week — is designed to serve people who’ve committed minor crimes by stepping in and seeing if they might be better served through mental health treatment and other social services, instead of jail time. The project will try to identify those at a crossroads — people who have entered the criminal justice system by committing minor crimes — here, city misdemeanors like trespassing and disorderly conduct.

When those misdemeanants are identified, they will be offered mental health assessments, help with filling basic needs (food, housing, employment) and extra supervision from the court instead of the standard passively monitored probation usually given to those convicted of city misdemeanors. It’s hoped that, with this extra help, more low-level offenders will not only become more productive for themselves and society, but will not climb the ladder of crime to felonies and violence.

Obviously, it’s too early to tell whether this particular program will be effective, since it won’t formally begin until April. But recent research shows these therapeutic courts can have an impact. Twenty-three percent of misdemeanor offenders who completed programs outlined by a special drug or alcohol court were arrested again within a year, compared to a 36 percent one-year recidivism rate for a control group of misdemeanants, according to a recent report from the Alaska Judicial Council. For felons who completed a plan, the re-arrest rate is 25 percent, compared to 36 percent for a control group. Of course, mental health issues and substance abuse issues are not one and the same. But it does show the theory of treating underlying issues — instead of simply correcting and punishing behavior without regard to the roots of that conduct — can be more effective in reducing crime than mere probation and prison.

Juneau’s second recent event designed to reduce crime instead of merely being tough on it was Saturday’s “Success Inside & Out” program. This event provided prisoners at Lemon Creek Correctional Center who will soon be released tools to get ready for life outside of prison by giving them guidance on employment, mental health and substance abuse treatment, housing and dealing with obstacles created by their status as former prisoners, parolees and probationers. Making a go of life outside of prison can be a challenge not just because of the reasons that put a man or woman in prison, but also because of what awaits him or her upon release. Many employers won’t hire former felons, and many landlords won’t rent to them. There’s also the social stigma that comes with a release from prison. Most in jail know these things are coming, but Success Inside & Out gives them tools to deal with them, increasing chances for post-release success.

As a state, Alaska is growing beyond its means to house its prisoners. Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed budget wanted to eliminate 288 state positions in order to pay for employees at the Mat-Su Valley’s new Goose Creek Correctional Center, according to The Associated Press. The state pays to house nearly 1,000 inmates in Outside facilities. To put the problem in economic terms, Alaska’s supply of inmates is growing rapidly, and it’s a supply for which there is no demand. Anything the state can do to stop arrestees from becoming prisoners and prisoners from becoming repeat customers will save money in both the short and long runs, and is worth pursuing.

• Charles Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire. The views reflected here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Empire.

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