- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Attorney General Craig Richards plans to establish a public integrity unit as a way to help improve trust in government.

The unit was one of the initiatives tucked into Gov. Bill Walker’s budget-focused State of the State speech Thursday night. Among other things, the administration also is looking at reviving a prison jobs program, and state education leaders are looking at ways to modernize Alaska’s public education system with a goal of increasing student achievement.

Richards told reporters Friday that the public integrity unit would make use of existing resources. It would focus on use of force by law enforcement, deaths in correctional facilities and allegations of government corruption or fraud. The Department of Law wants the public to feel that in such cases there’s an independent organization that has the resources it needs to investigate, he said.

Asked what prompted this, Richards said the department’s Office of Special Prosecutions was cut a bit too deeply and didn’t have the resources to turn around investigations of officer-involved shootings or prison deaths fast enough. That led to a conversation about ways to organize differently.

In a “post-Ferguson world,” the public also wants to make sure officer-involved shootings are appropriately scrutinized, he said. Richards said he wasn’t suggesting they aren’t now, but the department would have an investigator of its own.

Law enforcement typically sends the department cases for review and a decision on whether it should be pursued and prosecuted; the department usually doesn’t have its own independent investigators, he said.

Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills said the department is moving ahead with its plans for the unit. But she said it won’t know until the budget is finalized what resources it will have.

Reviving a prison jobs program fits with criminal justice reform efforts aimed at reducing high rates of recidivism, said Walt Monegan, acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

The department has had some degree of prison industries, but those have been reduced over costs, he said. This new focus will be in cooperation with local partners and is intended to not cost the state any money, he said.

Dean Williams, a special assistant to Walker who helped lead a review of the Department of Corrections following inmate deaths, said having a job inside a prison is a positive way to provide work training for inmates.

In his speech, Walker said state education leaders are developing a sustainable plan for public education focused on empowering local control, modernizing K-12 education and ensuring high quality teachers.

State education commissioner Mike Hanley said his understanding of Walker’s use of the word sustainable is that the department and state board of education aren’t looking at building new programs but instead are looking at a new way to do things.

Board chairman James Fields said the effort is still in its early stages.

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