Alaska lawmakers are grappling with an exploding prison population that has grown by 27 percent over the last decade. Since May, lawmakers have been working with the Pew Charitable Trust on Justice system reforms and have tasked a Criminal Justice Commission with bringing recommendations forward by December.
The $240 million Goose Creek prison has only been in operation for three years, but today on APRN’s statewide call in program Talk of Alaska, Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks, said the Department of Corrections budget last year was $327 million and DOC is running out of inmate space.
“And we know that if we keep this trajectory, we’re gonna have to build a new prison. It should be on the drawing board right now, so we’re in a little bit of a time crunch on looking for the best practices. One of the reasons we invited Pew Foundation up here and it’s a bipartisan effort.”
Pew has been working on justice reforms across the nation for decades. They require a bipartisan approach from all three branches of state government. Zoe Towns, the Alaska Program Manager for Pew says after years of incarceration increases, states that are reforming their criminal justice systems are seeing plateaus or decreases in their prison populations.
For example, Pew has worked with the state of Texas for a decade. Towns says Texas was looking at adding another 17,000 prison beds in the next ten years, but they decided instead to try a new approach and invested in policy reforms.
“And also make a pretty unprecedented investment into mental health programs, drug treatment programs, alternatives that judges and the parole board could use to sanction offenders and hold offenders accountable that didn’t necessarily mean long prison terms and what we’ve seen now in the intervening years is Texas’s prison population has actually stopped growing and began to decline.”
She says Texas has closed three prisons and has seen a decrease in crime rates.
Jeff Jessee is the CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The organization advocates for improving public policy. He says the authority grants about $20 million per year to try to improve service for mental health, substance abuse disorders and traumatic brain injuries.
“Sixty percent of the inmates in the Department of Corrections are trust beneficiaries. They not only tend to serve longer sentences but they recidivate at a higher rate. So we’re very excited about working with both Senator Coghill and the Pew Charitable Trust program because we are also a data driven organization that’s looking to turn the curve on these problems.”
Jesse says people re-entering society need three things: safe, affordable housing; good employment; and support for recovery from substance abuse or help addressing mental health concerns.
Senator Coghill says tribal courts can also do more. He says he’ll work in the next session to allow tribal courts to handle more problems in their communities.
“One of the other things they can do, they can do restorative justice in a way that we have a hard time doing in other courts. Many magistrates have been able to work, up here in the interior, the Tanana Chiefs have worked well with the court system here on tribal diversions. We’re going to try to codify that so that these things actually can help change the way we’re doing things in both our communities and in our jail system.”
Sen. Coghill sponsored Senate Bill 91, an omnibus justice reform bill. The recommendations of the Criminal Justice Commission will help shape the legislation in the 2016 legislative session.