- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Prisons.

Jail time.


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Those words for Alaska may mean something radically different if a sweeping crime bill, shepherded by Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, passes the Legislature.

Coghill, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has taken the lead in a bipartisan effort to keep Alaska’s incarceration rate from swallowing up millions of state dollars badly needed elsewhere in such places as education.

There is little opposition as legislators on both sides of the aisle believe continuing down the current path is untenable. Alaska prisons will hit their incarceration limits within two years based on current rates of growth.

Believing Alaska can no longer jail its way out its criminal problems, Coghill has welded together a new approach using initial research by Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.

“Back in the ‘70s,‘80s,‘90s everyone wanted to be tough on crime,” Ellis said. He noted the path then was essentially putting people in jail and throwing away the key. Now there are cost concerns to that approach, Ellis said.

Rising costs prompted Ellis to look at how other states, such as Texas, were doing it. Ellis said that state was looking to build four new prisons at the same time because of their growing prison population.

Ellis said Texas decided to go after the recidivism rate - the number of returning offenders into the prison system.

“That is where the focus of this bill lies,” Ellis said.

Ellis said instead of putting their money in new prisons, Texas chose to put it into community resource programs where they found they were getting the biggest bang for their dollar.

“Are they (society) willing to make the investment in people?” Coghill said. “What is the redemptive value of an individual, acknowledging the fact that there are some who have redemptive qualities and there are some who are just bad characters?”

Alaska’s newest prison, Goose Creek, opened only two years ago with a capacity of 1,472. The facility cost $240 million to build and $50 million annually to operate. It is now housing 1,408 due to overflow from Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The state has 5,153 inmates behind bars currently in a state whose population is estimated at 735,000. Alaska is third in the nation with 736 inmates per 100,000 people. Only Louisiana and Alabama are ranked higher for an incarceration rate.

Another 1,188 are either wearing electronic monitors or are in halfway houses. Two-thirds of those in prison are serving sentences for non-violent crimes.

The state could face building another expensive prison by 2016. It is hoped the programs in the bill will head off the expense of another prison.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said two factors came together during this legislative session.

“First, we needed to see what happened in other states like Texas, which is a conservative law and order state,” Wielechowski said. “And then we needed a conservative Republican like Sen. Coghill to guide it through the legislature.”

Wielechowski said the importance of the bill is in bending the corrections curve away from a new prison.

Coghill said the bill addresses issues long overlooked by the state.

“On some of these issues, we are behind more than 10 to 20 years,” Coghill said.

The bill establishes a 24/7 sobriety program with the immediate response being jail when violated, a financial fund assisting newly released inmates, raising monetary felony threshold levels, allowing jail-time credit for offenders in court-ordered treatment programs and the creation of an Alaska Criminal Justice Commission to re-evaluate current sentencing laws with an eye on alternatives to incarceration.

There are costs in taking a new path.

Putting the 24/7 program into place will have an annual price tag of $4.3 million. Restructuring Alaska’s probation and parole system will cost $1.6 million annually, creating 16 new positions. The grant fund program to help newly released inmates to get on their feet will also mean six new administrative positions with an annual price tag of $603,600. The Criminal Justice System for reviewing the state’s sentencing laws will have three positions budgeted at $320,000 and be in operation for five years.

It has grown from the simple bill Ellis had envisioned to a bill covering multiple areas.

“They are all interconnected,” Coghill says about the size of the bill.

The only opposition has been in raising the financial threshold for a felony from $500 to $750. The bill originally raised the threshold to $1,000. But opposition from Fred Meyer Stores and from the Alaska Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business wanted the threshold to remain where it is.

A compromise resulted in the threshold being raised to $750.

For Coghill, the current financial threshold for a felony is an example of what needed to be changed.

“It is too low and felony convictions start up a legal machine that is costly to operate,” Coghill says. “We’re going to have to look at our criminal code seriously for flexibility.”

Coghill said there are respectable studies showing two-thirds of a prison population can be successfully returned to a healthy, productive lifestyle. He is quick in pointing out that figure mirrors the current percentage of non-violent offenders in Alaska prisons.

Coghill says the heart of the bill is its 24/7 sobriety program. He noted that alcohol is the driving force filling Alaska’s prisons.

The 24/7 program calls for individuals to conduct an alcohol test twice a day with immediate arrest for violating it.

Even in rural Alaska, new technology now available will allow for almost immediate consequences if one violates the program, Coghill said.

“It’s an experiment, but it’s an experiment that has to work,” he said, noting the state is currently housing inmates at a cost of $160 a day while under the proposed crime bill a monitoring bracelet is only $30 a day.

“People are going to go through an election cycle before they see the benefits,” Coghill said. But he believes he can show results in financial savings to the state within 18 months of the bill’s passage.

The evolution of the bill has been highly bipartisan.

“I’m excited when we have the most liberal legislator here and the most conservative legislator here working together to bring this about,” Ellis said.

The bill goes before the Senate Finance Committee early next week and from there to a floor vote.

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