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Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions

Let’s Work Together to Bend the Corrections Cost Curve;
Substance Abuse Fuels Re-Incarceration and Drives Costs
By Sen. Johnny Ellis


January 24, 2012
Tuesday AM

You may have seen a lot of news lately about the rising cost of Alaska’s corrections system.  We have to face the facts: Prisons are incredibly expensive—regardless of where or how they are built.  It’s time for us to start focusing on why we have had to build a new prison in the first place. 

Alaska is not alone in its prison cost woes.  When Texas Republican Representative Jerry Madden was appointed Chair of the Texas Department of Corrections budget committee, the very conservative Speaker of the Texas House sat him down and said: “Don’t build new prisons, they cost too much.” Those eight words shaped Madden’s work on the Texas corrections budget.  At the Smart Justice Summit I hosted in early October, Representative Madden told the bipartisan panel that since he heard those eight words, Texas hasn’t built any new prisons.  If a tough-on-crime state like Texas can stop spiraling prison costs, I believe Alaska can too.

The high cost of building prisons is just the tip of the iceberg.  Alaska’s yearly operating expense for the prison system tops $283 million, up from $210 million just three years ago—an 11% increase annually—driven primarily by the high rate at which ex-offenders return to prison after release. The Alaska Department of Corrections reports that 66% of all criminals go back to prison after release, but only a small percentage are going back for new crimes. Most return for violations of their probation or parole, and substance abuse is the overwhelming cause of those violations.

In 2008 Texas faced a similar story: skyrocketing costs due to re-incarceration after release related to substance abuse and technical violations. Texas tackled this problem head on, using data-driven cost-benefit analysis from sound business planning. Texas deployed taxpayer dollars on only the most cost-effective and proven strategies for reducing the rate at which ex-criminals reoffend and return to prison.  Here are some of the top strategies Texas used:

800 new beds in a residential treatment program for low-level offenders on mandatory supervision with substance abuse problems

• Outpatient substance abuse treatment for 3,000 criminals on mandatory supervision

• 1,400 new beds in sanction facilities to divert probation and parole technical violators from expensive prison beds

• 300 new beds in halfway house facilities for people under mandatory supervision

• 500 new beds for an in-prison treatment unit targeting people with DWI offenses

• 1,500 new beds for an in-prison intensive substance abuse treatment program

• Intensive substance abuse treatment for an additional 1,200 prisoners in custody

• Requirements for probation officers to apply swift and certain sanctions to supervision violators

• Drug courts and other specialty courts to order low-level offenders into treatment programs

Texas spent a lot of money on all these new programs—$241 million to be exact.  But Texas saved $441 million in prison costs as a result. These smart-on-crime strategies actually saved Texas taxpayers $200 million.

Alaskans can get smart on crime too.  During the Summit, we learned that the Council of State Governments administers a Justice Reinvestment Program that helps states do what Texas has done.  To quote one of my colleagues, “Where do we sign up?” Engaging with CSG will require that the House, Senate, Governor, and Court System come to common agreement that Justice Reinvestment is a priority in Alaska. By opting into the reinvestment program, Alaska would join sixteen other tough-on-crime and fiscally conservative states including Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. 

I remain optimistic that Alaska’s three branches of government can come together to do the right thing. Every dollar we spend on prisons is a dollar we can’t spend on teachers, troopers, and senior centers. Remember what the conservative Speaker of the Texas House said to Representative Madden: “Don’t build new prisons, they cost too much.” I agree.  It’s time we work together, get smart on crime, and bend the corrections cost curve.

About: Senator Johnny Ellis represents downtown and midtown Anchorage and chairs the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Corrections.

Received January 23, 2012 - Published January 24, 2012



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