Task force seeks to stop prisons' revolving door

State and private agency leaders said Thursday they want to tackle on multiple fronts the expensive problem of repeat criminal offenders in Alaska.

As it is, two out of three Alaska inmates who get out of prison return to state custody within three years, according to the state Department of Corrections. Alaska ranks among the worst five states in the country for its high rate of repeat offenders, a recent national study found. It costs the state almost $50,000 a year per prisoner, the state says.

When released prisoners fail to integrate back into society, the problems are immense: "homelessness, unemployment, returning to addiction, a new crime and most importantly, a new victim," said Carmen Gutierrez, a criminal defense attorney for 24 years who now serves as deputy commissioner of the state Department of Corrections.

She's also chair of the Alaska Prisoner Reentry Task Force, which presented its five-year strategic plan to reporters Thursday. Task force members include police, troopers, judges, state officials involved in housing, juvenile justice and behavioral health, probation and parole officials, and leaders of nonprofit agencies.

Among the recommendations:

• Expand a promising experimental program that began last summer in Anchorage in which a limited number of convicted felons on probation receive swift consequences for failing a drug or alcohol test, or missing an appointment with a probation officer.

Those who mess up are arrested within hours or days, not months, which is how long it takes in cases that are outside the special program called PACE, for Probationer Accountability with Certain Enforcement program, said Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew.

"The system gets bogged down under its own weight," he said.

• Inventory state job restrictions related to criminal offenses and determine whether some restrictions could be eased and still keep the public safe.

• Promote private job opportunities for newly released prisoners. For instance, the state Department of Labor offers a form of business insurance for firms that hire potentially risky applicants, such as ex-cons. It covers losses from dishonesty on the job. The Labor Department also is promoting federal tax credits, which give a break to employers that hire felons convicted or released from prison within the past year.

• Expand substance abuse treatment opportunities in prison, as well as treatment for sex offenders.

• Improve access to housing for former prisoners, who may be automatically precluded from a rental based on their record.

Last budget year, the state prison population averaged just over 5,600 inmates. The number has been growing steadily year by year.