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Senate Bill would reform Alaska's prison system

Sponsors want to buck trend of increased criminal justice costs

Posted: February 4, 2014 - 1:33am

If the annual upward trend of repeat offenders in Alaska continues at the current 3 percent rate, by 2016 the state will need a new prison, according to data presented by Sen. John Coghill’s office during a judiciary committee meeting.

An omnibus bill currently in the Senate would create a Criminal Justice Commission, 24/7 sobriety program and increase the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000, among other things.

Coghill, R- North Pole, is one of the four senators behind the push to reform criminal justice in Alaska.

“Senate Bill 64 is trying to take proven practices to reduce recidivism, the cost to corrections, maintain public safety and do that within a structure that we have in state government now,” Coghill said.

The budget for Alaska’s criminal justice programs increases annually by about 7 percent. A new prison in Wasilla, the Goose Creek Correctional Center, was constructed in 2011 for $250 million. While one of the main goals of SB 64 is to save money, it also creates a Recidivism Reduction Fund that would grant money to transitional re-entry programs.

“The state is not exactly going up in income right now, so creating a fund we have to probably demonstrate some savings,” Coghill said.

Those savings are expected to come from implementing eight reforms included in the bill. The reforms are what Coghill says are “proven practices.” Jordan Shilling, an aide to Coghill, said that the reforms are inspired by the Smart Justice trend that started in Texas.

“Texas, the first state to do this, was faced with opening four new prisons. Rather than open those prisons, they did an investment in some of these areas,” Shilling said when explaining the reforms. “Instead of opening any new prisons, they actually closed a prison a few years later. So, they’ve proven successful where they’ve been implemented.”

The reforms included in the bill are:

• A 24/7 Sobriety Program which would implement twice-a-day alcohol testing on certain offenders and “swift and certain punishment” if the offender tests positive.

• A Criminal Justice Commission which would review, analyze and evaluate the effects of laws and practices in the state’s criminal justice system.

• Establishing the Probation and Parole Accountability with Certain Enforcement (PACE) program, which would be a drug testing program for felons who are at high risk of violating their probation.

• Creating the Recidivism Reduction Fund for residential treatment programs for those recently released from prison.

• Increase the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1,000. The threshold was created in 1978 and has never been increased for inflation.

• Allowing for limited licenses for some DUI offenders. This provision is intended to encourage those with lifetime revocations to seek treatment and drive with a limited license.

• Allowing time served in residential treatment to count against prison sentences.

• Creating an expanded risk-needs assessment to link inmates to available resources in order to reduce recidivism and give policymakers a better understanding of offenders.

The intent of the bill is to implement the reforms and achieve the intended goals while steadying the corrections budget. Shilling said that 86 percent of the corrections budget goes toward confinement, while only 4 percent goes toward reformative justice.

“One of the things we want to look at is how they’re allocating their resources to accomplish those things,” Shilling said.

Along with Coghill, Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, and Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River are the primary supporters of the bill.

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