Prison report warns about lax rehab funding

In Alaska, 1 out of every 88 residents is in state or federal jail

Posted: Tuesday, March 03, 2009

JUNEAU - Even as the state of Alaska prepares to break ground on a 1,500-bed, medium-security prison, a newly released national study says investments should be in rehabilitating prisoners instead of locking them up.

"We cannot build our way to public safety," says a report titled The Long Reach of American Corrections released Monday by The Pew Center on the States.

"With the costs of imprisonment rising and the benefits failing, our ability to keep communities safe depends more than ever upon our ability to better manage the 5 million offenders on probation and parole," says the report.

The study examined the number of people in the corrections system - those incarcerated, on probation or on parole - and the money spent on corrections from 1982-2007.

According to the report, 1 out of every 88 Alaskans is incarcerated in a state or federal prison, placing it 12th nationally.

The report says 1 out of every 61 adults in Alaska are either on probation or parole, placing it 33rd nationally.

A separate study presented in January to the Alaska Legislature by the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research - or ISER - says Alaska's inmate population could go from roughly 5,300 to 10,500 by the year 2030.

If the state spent an additional $4 million annually on existing rehabilitation and prevention programs, that population could be closer to 9,500, according to the ISER study.

Making those investments, however, is a tough economic sell in a state facing a financial crunch with the dropping price of oil and the public demanding immediate results, said Stephanie Martin, ISER's assistant professor of economics and public policy.

"The state wouldn't start to see any return for probably at least five years, but after that it becomes tremendous," Martin said. "It's just hard for people to think like that. It's easy to do on a computer, but politically it's tougher to do."

According to the Pew study:

- Alaska spent $240 million or 4.7 percent of its general fund on corrections last year, 2.2 percentage points less than the national average even though comparative state-to-state spending is difficult to pin down because of variances in calculations.

- The cost for one day spent in prison is nearly $129 per inmate, or the same amount for one prisoner's total costs for either 90 days of parole or 22 days of probation. The national average for prison is $79 per day, or 10 days of parole or 22 days of probation.

- For every dollar Alaska spent on prisons in 2008, it spent 6 cents on probation and parole. Only data from 34 states was available, but among those, 14 cents was spent on probation and parole for every dollar spent on prisons.

- Forty-one percent of those under correctional supervision - be it probation, parole or incarceration - was in prison or jail at the end of 2007.

Joseph Schmidt, the state's Department of Corrections commissioner, said he agrees with the study's assertions that corrections departments need to be proactive to ease the burden on the prisons. The department has a $246.3 million budget. Of that $13.1 million is spent on parole and probation programs.

Plans for the new prison in Palmer would enable Alaska to house 700 prisoners currently in Arizona facilities. The Alaska prison is scheduled to open in 2012.

"Confinement is the foundation of the system, but we are trying to move away from the philosophy that incarceration will solve the problem," Schmidt said.

One program launched two months ago at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward involves 264 inmates to be released within 6 to 18 months. The program closely follows a Federal Bureau of Prisons guide in helping inmates transition back to life outside prison.

Prisoners attend parenting and anger management classes, receive tutoring in life skills such as house hunting and job interviewing, and they work on getting vocational skills or a high school diploma.

"We are focusing on re-entering society, so they don't come back into the system," Schmidt said. "What we are hoping is that we don't grow our prison population to a point where we can't afford it."

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