Locking up criminal defendants and convicts costs a lot of money. At both the state and national levels, Americans are beginning to ask if this is money well spent. The numbers are alarming: on a per capita basis, the U.S. puts more people in prison and jail than any other country in the world. The number of minorities incarcerated is significantly higher than the general population, and the cost of these incarcerations is staggeringly large. There are serious non-monetary costs as well, no less real in their impact.
In Alaska, the problem is at least as bad as anywhere else in the country. Our prison population has grown 27 percent in the past 10 years, three times faster than the overall number of Alaskans. This led to the building of the state’s newest prison, Goose Creek Correctional Center in Knik, costing $240 million, which opened four years ago and is already operating at full capacity. There are well over 5,000 prisoners in the custody of the Department of Corrections; in less than 10 years there will be another 1,500 and we’ll need another facility. In addition to the significant capital cost, this would also further drive up annual operating costs at DOC. This is not acceptable, and now is the time to do something about it.
Two years ago the Legislature created a bipartisan Criminal Justice Commission to conduct a thorough review of the laws, policies and procedures that have driven the massive growth in our prison population. With support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, this commission was asked to, “… develop recommendations aimed at safely controlling prison and jail growth and recalibrating our correctional investments to ensure that we are achieving the best possible public safety return on our state dollars.” This work led to a document released last December called the Justice Reinvestment Report.
It’s worth noting that the Criminal Justice Commission’s work product refers to reinvesting, because that’s what is at stake. Spending funds to solve a problem is not the same as investing money to produce a return that has both financial and non-monetary elements. The latter is strategic, and seeks improved long-term outcomes, not more of the same.
The Justice Reinvestment Report (http://www.ajc.state.ak.us/sites/default/files/imported/acjc/AJRI/ak_jri_report_final12-15.pdf) is, at 36 pages, not terribly long. For a policy document, it is fairly readable for the average reader, and contains a wealth of important information. The report highlights that the number of people in prison awaiting trial has grown even faster than the overall prison population, at a staggering rate of 81 percent. This is a result of excessive, often unnecessary, conditions of release such as onerous bail, third-party custodians and other things which are impossible for defendants to meet. This means they must stay in jail awaiting their day in court. Pretrial incarceration without careful consideration causes the adverse effects of imprisonment to begin the moment a person accused of a crime is sent to jail: loss of employment and housing, breakdown of family relationships, and the other things that come with being locked away.
There are as many problems arising from excessive incarceration of convicts. In 2014, three-quarters of those sentenced were guilty of non-violent offenses, and felons now stay in prison one-third longer than 10 years ago. This is another driver of Alaska’s unsustainable prison population numbers. Senate Bill 91 is currently being considered and would implement the recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Report.
Apart from steps to help keep those who don’t really need to be there out of jail, we should do more to help those who have been incarcerated and are poised to leave prison to succeed when they re-enter society. The formal correctional system can improve the ways in which those on probation are supervised so people aren’t sent back to jail for insignificant violations of the terms on which they’ve been released. But society as a whole needs to be more welcoming and encouraging. If prisoners are willing to take the initiative to try to learn from their mistakes, and commit to obeying the laws, the rest of Alaskans must not re-judge them for what happened in the past, and instead work to assist their re-integration.
Success Inside & Out is a program designed to bring out the best in those leaving jail. In its ninth year, this is a one-day workshop that addresses the nuts and bolts of making it on the outside of the prison walls. This year, on Saturday, March 12, a large group of Lemon Creek Correctional Center inmates will spend the day hearing from a wide array of people who want to give them a message of hope and specific advice on how to succeed. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will start the day off with an inspirational message, to be followed by speakers who will address the challenges those soon to be released will face, and tactical ways to meet and overcome those challenges. Former prisoners who have succeeded will share their personal stories, surely the best proof that people can make their lives work after being incarcerated.
Success Inside & Out is put on by a committee of representatives from the Alaska Court System, DOC, the substance-abuse treatment community and volunteers from the legal community. All extra costs are paid for by donations of money from local law firms, attorneys, and private individuals and in-kind donations of food from the Island Pub, Subway of Juneau, and Bullwinkle’s. There is a demonstration of how to dress in a manner that will help one get a job, thanks to clothing donations from the Brown Boots Costume Company and others. The idea is to have prisoners spend the day thinking about what choices they can make in preparation for being releasead, so they never have to go back to Lemon Creek unless it is to share their story of how they made their lives work better.
Juneau residents interested in learning more about Success Inside & Out, or doing something to support this worthy effort, can contact the Clerk of Court’s office at the Dimond Courthouse. Our society stands to benefit directly from all efforts to make our justice and correctional systems work better, from the formal actions taken in the state Capitol, to a volunteer one-day seminar at the local prison. We’re all Alaskans, and we will be stronger as we set judgment aside and support others in their efforts to live life positively.
• Ben Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.