Criminal justice overhaul costs, savings unclear

JUNEAU — A bill to overhaul the criminal justice system has advanced in the Senate, though questions remain about how much money it will save the state.

A legislative fiscal analyst said Tuesday that estimates of savings to the Department of Corrections are speculative and rely on assumptions.

Sponsor Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, modeled the bill after a Justice Reinvestment Report commissioned by the Legislature and released in 2014. That report estimated $424 million in savings, primarily through reducing the prison population by 21 percent by 2024.

State Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, quizzed Division of Legislative Finance fiscal analyst Kelly Cunningham over savings estimates during a final hearing on the bill on Tuesday in his committee.

The department projected that it would need more than $3.6 million in its fiscal year 2017 budget request to deal with changes in sentencing, probation, parole and bail statutes, according to a fiscal note it attached to the bill. The department estimated that a new pretrial services program outlined in the bill will require up to 125 new positions, including probation officers.

The department also, however, projected reducing the prison population by more than 1,300 inmates by fiscal year 2017, saving more than $25 million.

Cunningham said it is difficult to calculate a specific amount of money saved through keeping people out of jail or holding fewer hearings. “I think it’s rather speculative at this point,” Cunningham told the committee.

The bill is scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Wednesday.

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