SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


State prisons: Less and less means more and more
By Sen. Kim Elton


December 03, 2007
Monday AM

Is a bad idea escaping from the state prison system?

There are rumblings that corrections administrators plan to ask for bags of loot to build new prison beds. Our prisons are bursting at the seams but we need to ask if adding new beds is the only answer to the problem.

I'd argue it's not. So do the professionals.

Warehousing without correcting, the pros say, perpetuates failure. But, after the last governor, we're doing less correcting now than the minimal amount we did before. The result--there's far more incarceration. In fact, the front doors on our prisons are revolving nearly as fast as the back doors. An iconic Rawhide theme song lyric goes: "ride 'em in, count 'em out". Our prison theme song could be: "let 'em out, count 'em in".

When we jail felons, give them not much more than a bed and food, then release them with a pat on the back, we don't make our neighborhoods safe. Releasing felons into the population with the same addictions or mental health problems that put them in prison is a zero sum and very expensive public policy.

Gov. Palin's top tier managers at corrections, health and social services, and public safety are not errheads. They know close to 80 percent of the felons in jail are there for crimes they conducted because they are addicted to alcohol and other drugs or while under the influence of alcohol and other drugs. They know many of those imprisoned are behind bars because of mental health problems that go untreated when they are released. They know recidivism is far too high because we don't deal with these issues while the felons are a captive audience. They know we don't deal with these issues after the folks behind bars transition back into the community. They know other states are beginning to succeed through investment.

So, if prison administrators are asking for a lot more money to build costly cells and cell blocks, doesn't it make sense to either supplement the request to add programs that can correct or add in-prison and transitional programs that cut back on the number of new and expensive beds? Of course, it does.

Talk to the jailers/cops/judges/prosecutors/mental health advocates/social workers and others who deal with public safety and they all say 'yes', it does make sense to work with felons while they're inside and after they transition out so they don't all become repeat felons. They say 'yes', we save a lot more money down the road by investing some money in correcting and treating now.

But the challenge confronting the governor and her commissioners at health and social services, corrections, and public safety is daunting. There's been an unfortunate common devolution in both government policy and corporate philosophy. In the corporate world, long-range thinking is far more difficult when Wall Street and shareholders judge performance on quarterly reports. In government, long-term savings are nearly always trumped by an aversion to the upfront costs that actually accomplish them.

But, after talking with some of the governor's top policy makers, I think she and her cabinet are capable of long-term governance. Last year the governor inherited a prison budget crafted by the former governor--that's the governor who cut back on in-prison corrections. She had time to only tweak what she inherited.

The prison budget she unveils in less than a month is all hers. Given what we've heard about alignment between the commissioners, I hope we get a budget from her December 15 that begins to do some correcting, begins to focus on prison-to-community transition, and begins to deal with community-based addiction and mental health programs that help keep folks out of trouble.

If we begin down that road, we can save dollars in the future and make our communities and neighborhoods safer. If we begin down that road we can get beyond another Rawhide theme song lyric--the one that goes: "just rope, throw, and grab 'em".

About: Senator Kim Elton (D) is a member of the Alaska Legislature representing Juneau.

Received November 30, 2007 - Published December 03, 2007



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