Prison population swells as inmates spend more time behind bars

Spring Creek Correctional Center. (Department of Corrections photo)
Spring Creek Correctional Center. (Department of Corrections photo)

Alaska’s prison population is growing. But as the state’s Criminal Justice Commission told legislators during a hearing Tuesday, it’s not because more people are coming in to the system. They’re staying longer.

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The Senate Finance Committee listened to a presentation by the Pew Charitable Trust on data from Alaska’s Department of Corrections over the last ten years. The state’s prison population has grown 10 percent over the last decade. As Terry Schuster with Pew explains, that’s three times faster than the state’s overall population.

“That growth is not being caused by more people coming into the prison system. You actually have less people coming into the prison system. The growth is driven by how long they are staying. What we see is people are about a month longer in prison for a drug crime or a property crime than they used to. For alcohol offenses and public order offenses they’re spending about three months longer than they used to.”

It costs the state $142 a day to house every prisoner, amounting to $327 million last year. The Pew Charitable Trust is helping the state’s Criminal Justice Commission come up with recommendations for how to change the current system, which is on track to grow by another 27 percent in the next decade.

“Again, the question for policy-makers, the question for the Criminal Justice Commision is: what are you getting for that extra month in terms of improved outcomes? What are you getting for that extra three months? And could you spend that money in a different way and get better outcomes?”

The Criminal Justice Commission is meeting three more times this fall ahead of issuing recommendations in December, before the start of the legislative session.