A bill sponsored by Sen. Fred Dyson argues that since Alaska’s prison population is currently growing at one of the fastest rates in the nation, new direction is needed to address non-violent offenders.
Despite the $250 million Goose Creek Correctional Center, the Department of Corrections estimates that all available prison beds will again be full in 2016. Per inmate incarceration costs have risen from $110 per day to $147 per day, or more than $50,000 an inmate per year.
The bill, SB 56, was heard Monday in the Senate Finance Committee.
Since 2005, the DOC’s operating budget has spiked nearly 94 percent, from $167 million to over $323 million.
“Finally, and perhaps most troubling, Alaska’s prison beds are increasingly filled with non-violent offenders,” Dyson said in his sponsor statement. “With our prisons packed and the cost of incarceration skyrocketing, we must seek responsible ways to slow prison population growth while preserving public safety.”
According to DOC data, from 2002 to 2011, non-violent offenders are the fastest growing segment in the prison population; drug and alcohol offenses account for a substantial portion of this growth. A recent study by an Alaskan researcher concluded that a significant driver of Alaska’s prison population growth is the rise in admissions for non-violent, small-quantity drug offenders, particularly felony offenders convicted of non-distributive possession.
Reforming drug policy could reduce this driver of prison growth and save the state millions of dollars, Dyson argues. His conclusion is supported by leading justice reform policy groups, recent DOC Dep. Commissioner Carmen Gutierrez, and Legislative Research Services who concur that the fiscal burden of current drug laws is significant.
SB 56 creates an escalating punishment regime, similar to Alaska’s approach to DUI’s, reclassifying the initial possession of non-distributive (small quantity) amounts of Schedule IA such as heroin, codeine, oxycodone and IIA substances, such as methamphetamine, mushrooms, cocaine from a Class C Felony to a Class A Misdemeanor.
This reclassification preserves a serious criminal penalty for drug possession, but allows first time offenders to avoid longer prison sentences of a felony. It also protects law enforcement’s ability to aggressively pursue distributors and repeat offenders.
According to the sponsor statement, a comparative analysis of states where small quantity possession is already a misdemeanor indicates that reclassification should have minimal impact on public safety. Misdemeanor states actually have slightly lower rates of violent crime, property crime and drug use.
The reform also would benefit offenders and their families by removing the stigma of a felony conviction, markedly improving employment prospects, professional licensing, and housing opportunities, all variables strongly correlated with decreased alcoholism, domestic violence and recidivism.
An Alaska Magazine article on the film industry, along with a lengthy letters list of film directors, actors and support staff, was entered into public testimony on a bill that would revoke Alaska tax credits for movies.
Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak-Wasilla, proposed HB 112, an act repealing the film production tax credit. The bill was heard this week in Labor and Commerce.
The Division of Legislative Audit released a report last fall that highlighted the program’s costs and impacts. Among the report’s conclusions, it found 84 percent of the jobs went to non-Alaskans.
“I supported leaving the film production office in place to show that Alaska is open for business,” Stoltze said. “This year, we’re facing some very difficult budgetary questions. How do we responsibly balance that with investing hundreds of millions of dollars in film production?”
Alaska incentives amount to $56,000 per full time job created. “I think it’s time that we focused on creating more lasting jobs for Alaskans, instead of jobs for lower 48 film producers. We are simply asking that this program stand on its own merits and go through a thoughtful public process.”
Over the past four years Alaska has subsidized 106 films, shows, and commercials at a cost of more than $35 million to the state.
“Hollywood Comes to Alaska” is the Alaska cover story for this month, detailing the cultural and economic impact of the movie industry. Longtime and Native Alaskans profiled in the article talk about the opportunities provided at this point in time and with the help of the incentives after decades of laying a foundation for filming in the state.
The bill leaves in statute the ability for the film program office to audit the record for previous recipients of film tax credits This will allow the Department of Revenue the ability to recover certain damages.
A controversial bill opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alaska Federation of Natives for imposing new identification requirements cleared its first committee Thursday despite objections.
One of the sponsors, Anchorage Republican Rep. Bob Lynn, said House Bill 3 won’t stop a single person from voting and that some of the critics have misconstrued what he aims to do.
“I want to emphasize that the only purpose of HB 3 is simply to help ensure that the person who shows up at the polling place is actually the person who they say they are. And I think that’s basically a pretty good idea,” said Lynn, who chairs the State Affairs Committee. The bill passed with what was described as unenthusiastic support.
Among those opposing the measure is US Sen. Mark Begich, who called the idea another way to take votes away from minorities, the elderly and the disabled.
The measure requires voters at the polls to show photo identification or, if they don’t have a picture ID, two other forms of identification such as a birth certificate, adoption record, government license, or tribal ID card. If two election officials know the voter, they can waive those identification requirements. And any voter can cast a questioned ballot that would be assessed for validity after Election Day.
Voter photo ID laws are hugely controversial across the U.S. because poor and elderly people and minorities are less likely than other voters to have required identification like a driver’s license, and they are more likely to be Democrats.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said licenses aren’t necessary to drive in 294 Alaska villages, towns and communities off the highway system. Obtaining a copy of other official ID, such as a birth certificate, costs money, and any fee associated with voting “is absolutely forbidden under the U.S. Constitution,” Mittman told the committee. “This is called a poll tax.”
Rep. Paul Seaton’s plan to conduct town hall meetings on the Kenai Peninsula Saturday and Sunday are now cancelled due to a family emergency.
“Following the wonderful visit I had with my father and family the weekend of the energy council, I am sad to report that my father’s kidneys failed and with very rapid decline he passed away last Thursday morning,” Seaton wrote in his newsletter. His Dad had recently celebrated his 104th birthday.
“I can only wish for any of us to be able to have a clear mind and the ability to make our own decisions at the end, though it is still emotional for each of the relatives. There is a memorial service this next weekend in California, in which we will be participating,” he said. George Kenneth Seaton’s obituary is printed on page 22.
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