Costs are uncertain on Alaska criminal justice bill

Alaska House majority members Reps. Chris Tuck, left, co-chair Paul Seaton, co-chair Neal Foster, Les Gara and Scott Kawasaki huddle during Finance Committee discussions about amendments to Senate Bill 54. If passed, the bill would amend Senate Bill 91, a major but controversial reworking of Alaska criminal justice laws passed last year. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

As Alaska lawmakers weigh requiring more jail time for offenders, they’re scrambling to understand the costs of a legislative tweak to last year’s criminal justice overhaul.

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The House Finance Committee may vote as soon as Thursday night on Senate Bill 54. The bill would scale back some of the reductions in sentences that made last year in the law known as SB 91.

Department of Corrections officials estimate the new bill could cost between $1.6 million and just over $4.3 million.

Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton said he’d like to see a more precise estimate.

He noted that the department will submit a budget on Dec. 15.

“If we’re throwing a dart at a dart board and saying a number, I mean, I presume on Dec. 15, you’re not going to say, we want some money, but we can’t tell you how much,” Seaton said.

Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams said much was unknown in estimating the costs.

The new costs are much less than the savings from SB 91.

That law is expected to save the state government $380 million in the next decade. Of the savings, $211 million would be from paying for fewer prisoners, while $169 million would come from avoiding the expense of another prison or sending prisoners out of state.

One unknown factor is whether amendments to SB 54 would increase prisoners and force the state to re-open Palmer Correctional Center.

Corrections officials say the number could be high enough that the state would have to consider building a new prison or sending prisoners out of state.

Williams said the state’s prisons are already at 91 percent capacity, and he said that number is low.

“When you have 40 men in a gymnasium, or 50 men in a gymnasium, that’s supposed to be used for a gymnasium – and that’s considered part of the standard housing, which is what the case is in Fairbanks – I think we have a problem,” Williams said.

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson told the committee co-chairs that she wants more information before the committee finishes its work on the bill.

“I’m hearing that we’re not going to have an accurate number, so I don’t know how you want to handle that, but I don’t think it’s fair to the committee, because we’re the Finance Committee,” Wilson said. “It’s about the numbers and how we’re going to come up with the money.”

The committee voted on amendments to the bill Thursday.

The House floor debate on the bill could occur this weekend.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Department of Corrections officials estimate SB 54 will cost between $1.6 million to just over $4.3 million, NOT $1.6 billion to just over $4.3 billion. 

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.