In 1997, a task force was formed to evaluate the state of Alaska’s criminal justice system. Despite having a lower incarceration rate than the average state, Alaska was still seeing steep increases in the number of prisoners that they housed. In the last decade spending on corrections increased by 86.6 percent. Prisoners were more likely to be sentenced to prison, and when they went, they were more likely to stay longer.
In response to this concerning fiscal and overcrowding situation, the Alaska Criminal Justice Council came out with findings and recommendations in January of 2003. 1 They recommended that the state reexamine probation and pretrial strategies, strengthen its rehabilitative programming to lower recidivism, further explore the – then new – restorative justice possibilities, provide more community diversion opportunities, improve mental health practices, and importantly reexamine the dollar amounts applied to property crimes. 2
These were all intended to lower the incarceration rate and to respond to what was soon becoming a looming crisis in Alaska’s criminal justice system. Unfortunately, mere recommendations did not solve the problem. By 2007, Alaska had five times the prison population that they had had in 1981, and spending had doubled.
A significant factor in the increases was the incredibly high recidivism rate. Almost half of previous offenders go on to commit another crime. This places Alaska as the state with the worst recidivism rate across the nation. 3
The state tried to address these problems head-on in 2014 with Senate Bill 64, 4 which aimed to increase treatment and rehabilitation, create more realistic felony thresholds for property offenses, as well as establishing a Criminal Justice Commission.
SB 64, signed into law by Governor Parnell, was a good first step, but Alaska still has significant reforms left to accomplish. The newly built prison in Goose Creek has already filled and will soon be overcrowded, as well. Further action will be necessary to prevent continued growth of the population and the taxes supporting it.
In July of 2016, Governor Bill Walker signed Senate Bill 91—the state’s comprehensive Justice Reinvestment package that was heavily informed by a decade’s worth of similar legislation passed in other conservative red states. Aimed at addressing the state’s stubbornly high recidivism rate and double-digit growth in its correctional population, SB 91 prioritizes prison space for serious and violent offenders by limiting incarceration of non-violent misdemeanants, expands discretionary parole capacity, and strengthens probation and parole supervision. Furthermore, it reinvests almost $100 million into critical needs, including pretrial supervision, substance abuse programs, re-entry support, and violence prevention programming and victim’s services.
Over ten years as public safety improves, these reforms are expected to reduce the prison population by 13%, and save taxpayers as much as $379 million. 5