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Rising imprisonment creates challenges.

Rising imprisonment creates challenges

During the last decade, Alaska has experienced the largest percentage increase in prison population of any state in the country. Not surprisingly, the trend has created problems for the state's penal system.

Demand for prison facilities and related issues were subjects of the "1990 Annual Report of the Alaska Sentencing Commission." The Alaska Sentencing Commission was created by the 1990 legislature in response to concerns about prison overcrowding. Its purpose is to evaluate the effect of sentencing laws and practices on the criminal justice system and to make recommendations for improvement.

The commission's 1990 report observes that Alaska's general population has increased gradually since 1980, while the state's crime rate has remained relatively stable. Meanwhile, the prison population has risen much faster than can be accounted for by those two factors alone.

At the end of 1989, the Alaska Department of Corrections housed 2,556 offenders in 15 facilities around the state. Twenty-three percent of these inmates were being held for sexual assault or sexual abuse of a minor. Violent crime offenders accounted for a full 55 percent of the prison population.

Needless to say, Alaska's prison statistics are rather alarming. But incarceration rates across the country are spiraling. Since 1980, the number of people held in state and federal penal institutions has increased 115 percent. According to the commission's report, in Alaska that number has jumped 230 percent, or twice the national rate. Further, Alaska had the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the United States in 1988.

Many states have attempted to build their ways out of prison overcrowding problems. Construction costs have helped to make spending for corrections one of the fastest-rising components of state budgets for the past decade. Amid discussions of how to pay rising bills for corrections, there's a great deal of debate about whether increased incarceration and prison expansions have any substantial impact on crime prevention. According to the Alaska Sentencing Commission, California projects that its prisons will be more crowded after its $6 billion construction program than they were previously.

In Alaska, the 1990 overall state operating budget was twice the 1980 operating budget. The commission's report notes that the 1990 operating budget for the Department of Corrections, at $99 million, was four and one-half times the 1980 corrections operating budget of $22 million. Also, since 1980, Alaska has spent $127 million for prison construction, renovation and repair.

In 1987, with state and local criminal justice expenditures per capita of $540, Alaska ranked second in the country (after the District of Columbia). That ranking undoubtedly reflects Alaska's proverbially high governmental costs, in addition to high corrections costs. The average cost of simply housing a prison inmate in an Alaskan institution in 1989 was $80 per day.

Trying to build prisons fast enough to keep pace with escalating incarceration rates may well be a losing proposition. In any event, there is increased interest in exploring less expensive alternatives to prison construction and operation.

An umbrella term for alternatives to prison stays as a means of punishing or controlling the offender is "intermediate sanctions." Among such solutions are house arrest and electronic monitoring, residential restitution centers, military-style boot camps for young offenders, and -- modeled after a European method -- "day fines" linked to the offender's daily income.

Intermediate sanctions provide middle-ground options between jail and probation: They're intermediary in administrative and capital costs, as well as in severity of punishment. The alternatives are touted as providing better opportunities for rehabilitation and development of job skills that likely would reduce recidivism in the long run.

The Alaska Sentencing Commission has expressed interest in exploring the increased use of intermediate sanctions in Alaska. Meanwhile, the legislature has requested that the commission address a broad range of policy issues related to sentencing reform. The commission has until June 1993 to complete that inquiry.

Daniel Patrick O'Tierney is an Anchorage attorney who serves as the lawyer member of the Alaska Public Utilities Commission.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Alaska should look to alternatives other than building more prisons to house a growing criminal population
Author:O'Tierney, Daniel
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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