Director anticipates heavy traffic, beneficial change as state officially opens pretrial services office

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - New Years' Day marked a big change for criminal justice in Alaska, as defendants begin gravitating toward the state and perhaps away from private companies for pretrial services.

"We've helped hundreds of people throughout the years," said Dennis Johnson of Alaska Pretrial Services, a private company in Alaska. "We have books, filled with thanks and letters for saving lives."

While APS - again, a private company - and other local pretrial businesses remain open, books like that will continue to be filled. At the same time, however, a new option is now out there for defendants, and it's provided by the state Dept. of Corrections.

"The Pretrial Enforcement Div. is a brand new model in the state of Alaska," said PED Director Geri Fox. "It includes, really, two lynch pins.

"One is that defendants will be assessed," she said. "Second, if a court wants supervision of a defendant, we have pretrial enforcement officers now."

The DOC's $10.2 million Pretrial Enforcement Div. and the Alaska Court System are also now officially armed with the Alaska 2 Scale pretrial risk assessment tool, meant to help gauge the likelihood of a defendant's failure to appear in court or new criminal arrest.

"If we let people out, how do to they do?" Fox said. "Now, we have statistics for that."

The assessment is based on 12 specific risk factors, such as age of first arrest and number of convictions in the past three years. Do keep in mind, however, that judges and the court still get the final say. It's just part of the arsenal to figure out what bail is appropriate for whom.

"I think we'll continue to refine it," Fox said, "but no other state is doing it the way Alaska is doing it."

Fox said the Alaska pretrial program has been built from the ground up with support from various businesses and law enforcement groups across the state, as well as input from national groups.

"We didn't just make this up," Fox said. "The ideas, the philosophies are not new to me. We have had some private vendors who do pretrial services.

"And they've done a great job for us," she said, "in fact, they've been advocates for tightening the pretrial model, because they too have had concerns about public safety. But they operate on a self-pay model, which is fine, but for a lot of poorer defendants, they were stuck in jail."

Still, people have questioned even her hiring: She was under fire in 2016 for missteps - fatal ones - by staffers reportedly under her watch, as Director of Adult Probation and Parole in the state of Utah.

"This is a risk assessment business," she said. "People get out of jail, and if anybody appreciates what that means for public safety, I get it."

Fully backed by the department and with 15 years of experience, Fox leads a team of dozens of pretrial officers. Together, they've officially opened their doors as part of Senate Bill 91, and could help people save a whole lot of time and money. The state is set to save something like $150 per person per day in incarcerations costs, for example.

But even more importantly, the program is meant to help keep defendants on the straight and narrow.

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