State embraces new justice report with prison reform specifics

Commission Chair Greg Razo talks about the new report at the Captain Cook Hotel. (Hillman/KSKA)
Commission Chair Greg Razo talks about the new report at the Captain Cook Hotel. (Hillman/KSKA)

Unless the state reforms its criminal justice system, all of the prisons will be full by 2017. A new report from the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission details solutions to that problem and could reduce the prison population and save the state money.

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The commission’s report includes 21 far-ranging, evidence-based recommendations for reforming Alaska’s criminal justice system.

If all of the recommendations are put into place, they could save the state $424 million over the next decade and reduce the prison population by 21 percent, according to the report. They focus on current problems, like the high number of people who are in prison awaiting trial, lengthy sentences even for non-violent offenders, and sending people back to jail for parole violations.

Commission chair Greg Razo from the Alaska Native Justice Center said it’s a comprehensive, data-driven look at fixing the justice system.

“We ask that the governor and the legislature see these recommendations as a package rather than as a menu to choose from,” he said during a press conference. “You can’t divert more low-level, non-violent offenders from prison without also strengthening community supervision and investing in programs that reduce recidivism.”

The commission suggests reducing bail requirements so fewer people are stuck in jail awaiting trail. Another recommendation shortens presumptive sentencing because evidence shows longer prison stays do not reduce the likelihood of someone going back to prison. Others focus on more meaningful supervision that involves substance abuse treatment, better risk assessment tools, and working with community organizations. They incentivize things like getting treatment while still in prison and successfully following parole requirements.

Gov. Bill Walker pledged his full support for the recommendations saying the state can’t afford not to implement them.

“This is a huge priority for us for so many reasons,” he said. Such as, “preventing future victims having to endure being a victim. I hear the cost of a new prison and it doesn’t even register to me… $300 million, $400 million for another prison? No. There’s just a better way of doing this.”

For the recommendations to become reality, the legislature has to enact them. Sen. John Coghill says he plans to incorporate them into his existing bipartisan justice reform bill, SB 91. He says it will have to go through five different committees, but he thinks it will pass, especially because it’s supported by all three branches of government.

“But I think there’s a readiness to say we can’t afford what we’re doing now, and we’re number one in too many hot areas,” he said, referencing the state’s high rates of domestic violence and substance abuse. “If we can do it differently and do it better, we should. I think there’s a real willingness to do that right now.”

The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission includes representatives from all three branches of government and community groups, and was created by the Legislature in 2014. It used data from the Pew Charitable Trusts to develop it’s recommendations.