By Dave Donaldson
Legislative committees this week began looking at the steps needed to reduce the cost of prisons while maintaining a “tough-on-crime” posture. The House and Senate Finance Subcommittees on Corrections on Monday heard of strategies used in Texas, where state Representative Jerry Madden recalled how he was part of a bipartisan approach to prison reform.
He says he was given the Corrections Department budget in 2005 with the instructions not to build new prisons. At the same time, the state projected needing space for 17-thousand new prisoners within five years.
Madden told the committees that he only saw two ways of dealing with the problem – let the prisoners out, or slow down the rate at which they are imprisoned.
I look at my types of prisoners and I say, You got people you’re afraid of and people you’re mad at. People you’re afraid of you gotta lock up, even my liberal friends agree, lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Those people are dangerous to you and to your society. For public safety and public protection, you gotta do things with them. But for those others, we’re mad at them.
As an example, he said drunks are dangerous and frightening. But once they have successfully completed a rehabilitation program, they are productive, non-threatening members of society.
Madden pointed Alaska lawmakers to five places in which they could look for ways to control the need for more prisons. Most important was cutting back on Recidivism. The committee members were told by state officials today that forty percent of Alaska’s prisoners will return to prison. Madden said there are other targets, too.
I think you can break the cycle of crime in five places. Certainly, probation was one of those. If you catch them before they get to prison, and you do things like specialty courts, and you do things like additional support for your probations department so they can monitor the people and they can provide help, and you can put drug treatment programs that work within your community and you can put alcohol treatment programs there for those people, you can keep them out of prison. That’s a lot less expensive than spending – we spend fifty bucks a day, the commissioner told me you spend $139 a day. That’s a lot of money.
Madden pointed to incidents of prisoners who lose their parole status for technical reasons, not new criminal activity. He said by taking a new approach to dealing with those problems, Texas has cut back on more than three thousand prisoners per year.
He also suggested Alaskans look at changes that could be made in the juvenile crime system –and in the state education system.
Because your juvenile system is obviously getting people who are preparing to come to the adult system if you don’t break them in the juvenile system. And second of all, your school and school disciplinary programs and things like that, you need to certainly look at what’s happening within your public schools so that have fewer people coming in who are now on what is called the pathway to prison.
Madden said that five years after beginning its reform of the system, not only has Texas not needed a new prison – the state has actually closed one.
He said Texas has proven that a prison population does not have to rise. It can be controlled at a lower cost than building new facilities. And, he challenged Alaska legislators to do the same — with less money than it would take to supporting the current corrections system.