Monday, November 27, 2006

Alaska Is Number One Nationally In Per Capita Spending For Prison And Justice Systems

According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Justice in April 2006 (updated on May 10th) and provided to the Alaska State Legislature in October, Alaska is ranked number one in the nation in per capita spending on prision and justice system programs. Original story from KTVF Channel 11 in Fairbanks. To see the DOJ report in PDF format, click HERE, then scroll down to table 5 on page 5. It's entitled "Justice Expenditure and Employment in the U.S. 2003".

The report, based upon statistics from 2003 (the latest available to DOJ), shows that a total of $402,981,000 was spent on the Alaska justice system. Divided amongst the then 648,510 of the state's residents, this grades out to $621 per resident, by far the highest total in the nation. The national average is $228. To provide additional perspective, here's the top ten:

1). Alaska - $621
2). Delaware - $478
3). Connecticut - $372
4). Massachusetts - $342
5). Wyoming - $333
6). Maryland - $323
7). Vermont - $300
8). New Mexico - $293
9). Virginia - $291
10).Rhode Island - $283

KTVF reports that overcrowding is one of the issues adding to the costs. Approximately 1,000 Alaska prisoners are presently incarcerated in Arizona because of lack of prison space within the state and must be flown back and forth for court dates. Officials say that transportation issues alone cost the state $20 million annually and that there is critical problem with overcrowding in Alaska. Officials further say that overcrowding has been increasing for 15 years, although the proposed new facility to be constructed in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and opened in 2010, with a projected capacity as high as 2,251 will alleviate this problem somewhat amongst the sentenced prison population, reduce the pressure on regional facilities throughout the state, and perhaps even enable us to repatriate our prisoners in Arizona. Housing Alaskan prisoners outside of Alaska also makes it difficult for their relatives and friends to visit them and maintain the outside support network which can facilitate post-release rehabilitation.

However, the proposed Mat-Su prison is NOT a slam dunk. Strong opposition to the proposed Palmer South site and to expansion of the existing Sutton facility has already emerged. Reaction to a proposed site in Houston has been mixed. Only a proposed Port Mackenzie site has drawn virtually no opposition. The Palmer South and the Houston sites are considered the primary contenders. At least this prison will be a state-run prison, though. Two previous private prison initiatives, one in South Anchorage in 1997 and another in Whittier in 2005 were rejected. Much of the opposition to the South Anchorage prison was "NIMBY" (Not In My Back Yard); however, many are concerned that private prisons, in an effort to cut costs and maximize profits, would hire underpaid, undertrained, under-vetted, and underqualified staff and abuse inmates.

Even if we could repatriate all our Arizona prisoners tomorrow, it's unlikely that the $621 figure could be reduced significantly. First, we have a serious deficit in prosecutors and public defenders throughout the state. This deficit seriously delays trials and causes unfortunate plea agreements like the one granted to a Peruvian national back in July 2006, when he was permitted to plea bargain child kidnapping and rape down to a three-year sentence for sexual abuse of a minor. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich has attempted to tactically address this shortfall by using Federal grant money to hire two lawyers with staff and second them to the local Federal prosecutors office. They will be cross-designated as Federal prosecutors and will look for ways to divert some state cases to the Federal system to capitalize on their reduced workload and stiffer Federal penalties for certain crimes, like using a firearm in the commission of another crime. However, if the Alaska State Legislature decides to permanently eliminate the shortfall, it will cost more money.

Second, we also have a serious shortfall amongst correctional officers. One need only view the lengthy list of employee grievances on the Grievance Summary Page of the Alaska Correctional Officers Association's (ACOA) website to understand the gravity of the situation. One of the major grievances is excessive forced overtime. Corrections officers report being routinely tasked to work up to four hours overtime AFTER working a twelve-hour shift. They also are pressured into signing up for "pre-scheduled overtime", under the premise that you "volunteer and have some control over how you get screwed, or don't volunteer and have no control over how you get screwed". The State of Alaska is now actively recruiting more corrections officers to "walk Alaska's toughest beat", but these new hires will also cost more money.

The upshot is that if we want the thugs off the streets quicker and have them in secure facilities minded by qualified, motivated keepers, the $621 figure will have to rise. An ounce of prevention may well be worth a pound of cure, but a flu shot will not treat full-blown pneumonia. This problem warrants aggressive intervention and necessary financing.

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