By Dave Donaldson
Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti today called for more cooperation between the court system and the legislature to reduce problems in Alaska’s society — with particular focus on the issue of recidivism, people returning to prison after completing their first sentence for criminal activity.
Fully sixty-six percent of offenders — two thirds of those incarcerated — now re-offend and return to jail at some point in their lives. This is an astounding number. And one that must motivate us to examine what causes so many Alaskans to spend their lives cycling in and out of the criminal justice system.
He told a Joint Session of the House and Senate that the Criminal Justice Work Force estimates that if the current recidivism rate doesn’t improve, the state will have to build one new prison — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars — every ten years, just to keep pace with the expected prison population.
Obviously, we must do better. And we are trying in several ways.
He said the court system is reviewing recidivism and crime reduction programs funded by the legislature last year. When that review is completed, the courts and lawmakers will be able to measure the effectiveness of their efforts.
With solid data about actual outcomes, we can learn which methods work and which methods don’t work to reduce recidivism. And perhaps more importantly, learn how and why. With this information, you can make policy decisions based on hard evidence.
One program he expressed hope in focuses on a convict’s first two days out of prison. He said that is the most critical time, when people need support. The court is sponsoring pre-release sessions to teach prisoners what he calls “life skills” for re-integration into society.
The speech got a good reception from lawmakers, Senate Judiciary Chair Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat, said the Chief Justice opened a door between the two branches of government. And, as a former state prosecutor, French said the comments concerning recidivism got a good reaction. He says people are beginning to recognize that there’s a down side to a tough-on-crime policy.
Ninety percent of the people who go to jail get out. And the point is to use that time — and the time when they do get out — to try to teach them not to re-offend. It lowers the crime rate and it lowers the cost of imprisonment if we can just slow down the rate at which these individuals re- offend.
Justice Carpeneti said taking the steps necessary for communications between the three branches of state government will bring returns to each of them.