Senate Opens Crime Summit

The State Senate opened its Crime Summit Tuesday – a series of meetings bringing lawmakers up to date on statistics, trends and options available to the criminal justice system.

In opening the two days of meetings, Judiciary Chairman Hollis French asked observers to keep in mind a few basic facts:   the state now has more non-violent prisoners than those who committed violent crimes; the Department of Corrections shows the newest prison, Goose Creek in the Matsu, cost $238-million to construct;  and the average cost of a new high school in the state is $60-million.

“That’s the good news.   The bad news is that DOC tells us we will be overcapacity in 2015.   July 2015. We can’t just keep building prisons. I am still a prosecuting attorney at heart. I was a prosecuting attorney for six years. I am perfectly okay with sending deserving individuals to prison for longs periods of time. But we ignore these costs at our peril,” French said.

French said the purpose of the Summit is to explore ways to, “bend the line” to delay the arrival of that declaration of overcapacity. He said a recent study of Alaska-based criminal system programs showed little balance between program costs and effectiveness.

“For example,  electronic monitoring systems saved lots of money,  but they don’t keep people from committing new crimes.  On the opposite side, sex offender programs do reduce recidivism, but they’re so expensive they produce no savings.  These are important things you have to keep in mind as you construct responses to a burgeoning prison population,” French said.

He said the study did show that Head Start – early childhood education – is one of the options that saves the most money over time – and has the most long-lasting result.

Annie Pennucci, a senior research associate with the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, presented data backing up those studies.  She called early education as one of those events with an Enduring Impact.

“You’re three years old, you’re getting something.  You wouldn’t think that twenty years later that’s changing the course of your life.  But the research shows that it really can,” Pennucci said.

She pointed to studies showing a 20 percent reduction in crime rates among low-income people who have participated in early education programs.  And that’s where she finds the return on what is a $7,300 – per student – investment by the state.   The payback is in lower criminal justice system costs, lower costs to victims. There are also benefits in such fields as health care costs, higher salaries, and lower education costs.

“So you sum those up and you have almost $22-thousand in benefits per individual over their lifetime.  And the payoff we estimate is about three dollars per dollar invested.   So that’s a pretty good return,” Pennucci said.

The Crime Summit will continue through tomorrow afternoon at the Capitol in Juneau.

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