ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - An Alaska House of Representatives budget subcommittee has approved a proposal that would see more use of electronic monitoring and alternatives to prison for criminals being reintegrated into society.
As reported by the Anchorage Daily News earlier in the week, the budget subcommittee also rejected the governor’s plan to send 500 inmates Outside, a proposal that was estimated to save $12.8 million per year.
Rep. Tammie Wilson, R - North Pole, the chairwoman of the corrections subcommittee, said the governor’s plan had no specific directions for where Alaskan inmates would go, and she expressed doubt that contracts could be finalized before July 1.
The controversial policy of sending prisoners out of Alaska began winding down in 2012. Wilson doesn’t believe it should start up again, saying Alaskan prisoners should serve their time in-state where they are supported by their community.
“The biggest problems we have in institutions right now is that we don’t have enough mental health and substance abuse counselors,” Wilson said before describing the need for more treatment to lower recidivism rates.
Senate President Cathy Giessel, R - Anchorage, said increasing funding for treatment is “absolutely something we’re talking about,” and that the Senate Majority is examining how to combat addiction issues and to bridge gaps in education.
The focus though for the Senate Majority, said Giessel, was protecting Alaskans.
Across the Legislature, lawmakers have repeatedly signaled that public safety is their number one priority after a spike in certain crime statistics since 2013.
At the beginning of the legislative session, the governor introduced four criminal justice reform bills that would repeal measures introduced with Senate Bill 91. The bills would increase sentencing ranges, address sex crimes, pretrial processes, and parole.
The subcommittee’s proposal would see greater use of electronic monitoring and halfway houses at the end of sentences as inmates prepare to leave prison. However, Wilson reiterated that the proposals would not impact the governor’s planned changes to parole or sentencing ranges.
Furthermore, according to reporting by the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer, only prisoners approved by a court would be allowed to “go down to electronic monitoring.”
Sarah Gallagher, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, wrote in a statement that the department expects 400 people would be put in halfway houses while another 200 would be put on electronic monitoring.
“This would require the Department to broaden our criteria for placement allowing those who currently do not qualify to be eligible,” she wrote. “Allowing higher risk offenders to be placed in CRCs or on EM creates a significant public safety concern.”
Wilson described that lawmakers in the House and Senate had all been communicating about making reforms. “We have to do justice differently if we want a different outcome,” she said.
Giessel confirmed that leadership in the House and Senate had been talking, but she said the Senate Majority had not been able to do a “deep dive” into the proposals made about electronic monitoring.
Similarly, the governor said he not heard of the subcommittee’s proposal regarding electronic monitoring, but he reiterated the need to improve public safety in Alaska.
“We’re not going to have dangerous prisoners outside on ankle monitors,” he said in an interview with Channel 2. “We’re going to make sure that our dangerous criminals, that are hurting people or worse, those people are going to be contained either in state or out of state.”
On housing inmates, the House Finance subcommittee differed again from the governor’s plan. Under the governor’s budget proposal for FY2020, two wings housing sentenced inmates at the Wildwood Correctional Center would be closed, saving around $6 million.
Wilson said the Kenai facility worked well and that it should remain open. Under the budget subcommittee’s plan, $10.5 million would head to community residential centers or halfway houses, allowing them to house more prisoners.
Wilson described the facilities as being underutilized. As of October of 2018, 286 people were being housed in halfway houses across Alaska.
Despite being passed from the subcommittee, the proposals for the Department of Corrections’ budget are still a long way from becoming law.
The full House Finance Committee would need to approve the proposals before an Operating Budget is approved by the House and Senate. The governor would then need to sign a budget containing those proposals into law.
For the governor, the focus is to “make the state as safe as possible, so, we’re going to examine all these potential recommendations and address them when we see them.”