Coping with the cost of prisoners

Posted: Sunday, May 21, 2000

The city is looking at the cost/benefit ratio for putting people away.

Juneau Assembly member Tom Garrett recently asked the city's law department for an analysis of Juneau's incarceration expenses. Garrett is also vice chairman of the assembly's Finance Committee, which plans to take up the high cost of housing offenders at its Wednesday meeting.

Juneau's charges for offenses such as driving under the influence and certain cases of domestic violence come under the city code, the only city in Alaska other than Anchorage where that happens, said City Manager Dave Palmer.

The trouble is ``Anchorage pays $1.5 million (in incarceration costs),'' he said. ``We pay a million.''

Juneau has about a ninth the population of Anchorage.

The report from the city attorney's office ``confirms that the Law Department is delivering on its . . . commitments to make effective use of a second prosecutor. One result has been increased jail expenses.''

The report also notes that after several years of increases, Juneau's misdemeanor caseload is leveling off; that much of the jail time served by locals results when the court imposes time previously suspended; and that longer sentences account for a large fraction of total days served.

One remedy might be simply to dump the caseload on the state.

``Some cities have done that,'' said City Attorney John Corso. ``But the district attorney is a very busy fellow right now: Where he used to have four prosecutors, for example, he now has only three.''

Under such conditions, some cases might not be tried and there could be an increase in deals cut, Corso said.

The report suggests four ways to reduce jail costs: judicious use of suspended sentences; improved cooperation with the district attorney; alternative sentences such as in-home detention; and enactment of a vehicle forfeiture ordinance.

Repeal of the DWI or assault ordinance would have a significant effect on jail expenses, Corso said. ``In my judgment, it would be an unfortunate reversal of a longstanding and effective public safety policy.''

Corso said he has been in communities which have handed their caseloads over to the state and has observed there a much higher incidence of public inebriation and other problem behaviors than Juneau's.

``This is not as easy an issue to deal with as the need for police or prosecutors,'' Corso said. ``Incarceration is an expensive business.''

Juneau is the only city in Alaska ``that pays full tilt,'' said Finance Committee Chairman Dwight Perkins. ``It costs us a million a year, and we'd like the state to pay half of that.''

The Finance Committee meets at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Assembly Chambers.

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