JUNEAU — With a possibility of building an expensive prison within three years staring them in the face, the Alaska Senate unanimously passed a sweeping crime bill Friday hoping to stem Alaska’s rising inmate population.
The measure’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader John Coghill of Fairbanks, said the bill was a bi-partisan effort.
Alaska has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, costing state residents $58,000 a year to house one inmate.
“Our recidivism rate is just too high,” said Coghill, speaking of returning offenders. “People have to be safe, but just putting people in jail doesn’t make Alaska safer.”
Two-thirds of the state’s inmate population is behind bars for non-violent crimes.
The bill establishes a 24/7 sobriety program with immediate arrest if violated, a financial fund assisting newly released inmates, raising monetary felony threshold levels from $500 to $1200, allowing jail-time credit for offenders in court-ordered treatment programs and the creation of an Alaska Criminal Justice Commission to re-evaluate current sentencing laws with an eye on alternatives to incarceration.
The bill directs the Alaska State Department of Corrections not only to do assessments on incoming prisoners, but to specifically look for those suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome.
There are costs for taking the new approach.
Putting the 24/7 program into place will have an annual price tag of $4.3 million. Restructuring Alaska’s probation and parole system will cost $1.6 million annually, creating 16 new positions. Administering the new grant fund program for helping released inmates to get on their feet requires six new administrative positions with an annual price tag of $603,600. The grant fund itself is budgeted for $550,000. The Criminal Justice System for reviewing the state’s sentencing laws will have three positions budgeted at $320,000 and be in operation for five years.
What lawmakers are looking at is Alaska’s newest prison, Goose Creek, opened only two years ago with a capacity of 1,472. The facility cost $240 million to build and $50 million annually to operate. It is now housing 1,408 due to overflow from Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
“Are we sentencing people in the correct way?” Coghill asked the Senate. “We have to look at our sentencing structure.”
The only opposition has been in raising the financial threshold for a felony from $500 to $1,200. The bill originally raised the threshold to $1,000. But opposition from Fred Meyer Stores and from the Alaska Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business wanted the threshold to remain where it is.
An earlier compromise in the Senate Judiciary Committee resulted in the threshold set at $750 before the Senate Finance Committee pegged it at $1,200.
For Coghill, the current financial threshold for a felony is an example of what needed to be changed.
“It is too low and felony convictions start up a legal machine that is costly to operate,” Coghill said.
However, Coghill does anticipate opposition in the House over the felony threshold level.
Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, called for the bill’s passage.
“Having been a prosecuting attorney for six years, I believed in the therapeutic value of jail,” said French. “Violent people are the ones that need to be in a cell which this bill does.”