Bipartisan effort to enact justice reform taps Outside help

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.

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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.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori