Serving time at home

Money-saving program for prisoners raises questions

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2000

Patrick Eggers, a Juneau firefighter, was sentenced Jan. 10 to a year in prison for an August shooting incident in Skagway. Eggers got drunk and fired a shotgun slug through the door and into an interior wall of a house. There were five people sleeping in the house at the time, but no one was physically hurt.

Eggers pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, weapons misconduct and drunken driving - all misdemeanors - after originally being charged with a number of felonies.

The deal was arrived at by the state district attorney's office and Eggers' lawyer, and then approved by the presiding judge: a guilty plea to reduced charges for a year in prison. And after the judicial arithmetic was over and done with - the consecutive this and the suspended that - Eggers got just that, a year in jail.

Except that he served only ten days and then went home.

His release, if it can be called that, came about because he applied for and was accepted into the state Department of Corrections' Offender Supervision Program - known in Juneau as Level Five.

Though the statewide program would seem to manifest a principled commitment to rehabilitation, in fact it was born - as other such programs were - out of the practical necessity of dealing with the overcrowded prisons of 1980s Alaska, according to Allen Cooper, state Division of Institutions director.


Andy Swanston of Gastineau Human Services


Perceptions about what the program does or doesn't do differ according to the roles the participants at each level play - whether legal, penal or criminal:

``I didn't think the Level Five program could be applied when the offense is against a person,'' said Assistant District Attorney Sue McLean, the prosecutor in the Eggers case who negotiated his deal.

``People in the program are good risks to go on furlough,'' said Mike Truax, Level Five case worker.

``Level Five gives me the extra structure I need,'' said Kelly Derego, a former Lemon Creek Correctional Center inmate now serving her time at home.

``In Eggers' case, I was shocked,'' said District Attorney Richard Svobodny. ``The deal was definitely not for (10) days.''

``A judge can't say where a person goes'' after sentencing, said Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks.

Eggers and his attorney could not be reached for comment.

To get out of jail, an offender must measure up to a number of criteria. They include being within 12 months of release from incarceration, developing a written release plan, having no sex offense or domestic-violence conviction, and having an approved residence in the community and a means of support.

The applicant also has to pass muster with respect to the seriousness of his or her offense.

``Everything related to the offender's crime is considered,'' said Andy Swanston, operations director for the nonprofit group Gastineau Human Services, administrators of the program in Juneau. ``In Mr. Eggers' case, it was his first crime and he had a sterling record as a citizen.''


Suprise check: Michael Truax of Gastineau Human Services rings the doorbell of a client in the Offender Suprvision Program. Truax takes a breathalizer with him to check if clients are complying with the ban on consuming alcohol.


Sterling record notwithstanding, and though Judge Weeks has made it clear that his turf does not include the actual execution of the sentence, the district attorney is miffed.

``A year was the maximum sentence for that offense,'' Svobodny said. ``What this means is it's going to be substantially more difficult to resolve cases for the state.''

Svobodny questioned whether the seriousness of Level Five participants' convictions is sufficiently weighed in pre-release deliberations. One participant was a woman who had been held responsible for starving her infant to death and been sentenced to 20 years for it - with 10 years suspended, he said.

``She had served more than 90 percent of her time,'' countered Swanston, in what he referred to as ``more of a case of child neglect.''

Further, deterrence as a reason for imprisonment just doesn't work, he said, and can only be part of a system that includes graduated release where prisoners can be observed in the community. ``Eggers is exactly the kind of person this program is for.''

Kelly Derego got five years at Lemon Creek for an offense she says was nonviolent and drug- and alcohol-related. After a couple of years she moved to a halfway house and last October graduated to Level Five. She went home.

``I have never been able to get on my feet, and the program has provided me the structured life that I needed,'' she said.

That jail is structured is a truism, but Level Five ``is definitely tougher,'' said the program's case worker, Mike Truax. ``In jail you don't have to worry about treatment or child support. You don't have to worry about victims or anything.''

To be ``free'' on Level Five means you had better be concerned with all of the above - and considerably more.

Participants are forbidden the use of drugs or alcohol. They may not enter a business where alcohol is served. Their residences may be searched at any time. They are subject to random breathalizer tests and urinalyses. They must inform employers they are in the program. They are checked at work.

They are given two four-hour passes and one eight-hour pass a week. Where they are and what they are doing must also correspond to the weekly ``flight plans'' they must submit to their case worker. They must enroll in various treatment programs - drug, alcohol, psychological, anger management, victim awareness, parenting - and pay for those treatments themselves. They are ``locked down'' for eight hours a day. If they are not high school graduates, they must study for a GED.

``I've been in and out of incarceration for the last 10 years of my life,'' Derego said. ``And this is the best program I've ever been in. Sure, Andy (Swanston) is tough. Me and him have butted heads. But it's working for me. I get up and go to work every morning. I have a good job. I'm nuts about softball in Juneau. It's a real break.''

Derego attends up to five one-hour Alanon and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week, as well as a relapse class at the Juneau Recovery Hospital. She talks a lot with Truax. She has to submit to the random booze and drug tests. She has to be inside her residence by 10 p.m.

Other ``programs'' she's been involved in include once having been released from jail in Anchorage and given $250 ``gate money.''

``That was it,'' Derego said.

Mike Truax is where the prisoners interface with the system. And the program may be as demanding of him as it is of its up to 15 participants.

A 22-year veteran Lemon Creek parole officer who signed onto Level Five when it started in Juneau a year ago, Truax makes unannounced visits to his clients' residences at least once a week, he shows up at their place of work at least as often, and he schedules and administers random drug and alcohol tests.

And he talks to them.

``This is what field parole officers would do if they had the time,'' he said.

Truax has the time to be thorough in his home visits: ``I've got 22 years in prison. I know the subtle places where people hide things - drugs and guns and alcohol.''

Truax will not file a violation if he finds a bottle of cooking sherry in his initial search, he said. ``People might not have got rid of it because they forget about what they have.''

But anything found on a subsequent search is another story.

Though the prisoners oblige him - they have to - the job has its

sadder moments.

``I try to be very careful around children. Though the smaller ones don't know what's going on, the others do. My least favorite situation is one that involves kids,'' he said.

Statewide, the Offender Supervision Program - in Juneau, Level Five - has so far had 167 people go through it. And to the multiplicity of views that exist about the project, Institutions Director Cooper adds a practical, bottom-line take: ``A hard bed in a prison costs the department about $110 a day. People in the Offender Supervision Program must give us 12.5 percent of their gross pay, and they end up costing us about $17 a day.''

If each of those 167 people served six months in the program, the state saved about $2.8 million in institutionalization costs.

Cooper said he thinks the program is successful. ``How I measure success is not only have people completed their sentence, but they are paying their own way and putting value back into the community.''

The sentiment is close to Truax's as well. ``When I was 25 years old and first got into this, I wanted to save the world,'' he said. ``I haven't given up on saving some people, and these people are coming back into the community.''

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