Alaska lawmakers seek reduction of prison costs, recidivism

The Anchorage Daily NewsOctober 4, 2011 

Alaska's growing -- and expensive -- prison population is getting new attention from state legislators, who say they want to try new ways to lower inmate numbers.

And they are looking hardest at those who have already been there.

Lowering Alaska's high rate of repeat offenders would not only save money but also could mean a better life out of jail for those who now keep getting in trouble, legislators said.

House and Senate panels that oversee the state corrections budget hosted a daylong "Smart Justice Summit" at the Legislative Information Office in Anchorage Monday to learn how other states tackled the problem and to examine what innovations might work in Alaska.

"There are escalating costs that are of significant concern," said Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat from Anchorage who chairs the corrections budget panel in the Senate.

This year's operating budget for the state Department of Corrections tops $288 million, up more than $110 million from what was being spent 10 years ago, according to the agency.

The state's new Goose Creek prison, which is supposed to open next July, cost about $250 million to build, and if state leaders don't flip the trend, it'll be full in just a couple of years.

Liberals and conservatives can unite over reforms that cut costs while offering more help for offenders, Ellis said. For example, he said he backs all the principles -- including accountability, lowering crime and rehabilitation -- espoused by an initiative called Right on Crime that includes high profile conservatives, Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush and Ed Meese among them.

"It's a magic moment," Ellis said.

In a sense, crowded prisons are a problem of politicians' own making, the result of get-tough-on-crime laws that swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Alaska's Legislature passed its share.

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