Decreasing oil revenues have left Alaska facing a massive budget shortfall. The state has looked at all sorts of ways to cut costs, including slashing spending on roads, schools, and boats. Its newest plan could save almost half a billion dollars, and it’s drawing support from both the left and the right. The savings would come from a surprising place: The state will help some people avoid serving prison time.
For decades, politicians have all stripes have competed to be “tough on crime.” But now, in Alaska and other conservative states across the nation, difficult finances have led politicians to another conclusion: Prisons are expensive, and programs to reduce their populations can save states a lot of money. In Alaska, criminal-justice reform, long pushed by liberals who don’t like the way people are treated in the system, is now a favorite cause of fiscal conservatives.
“The budget situation has put this into the ‘we-got-to-do-this’ category,” said Alaska State Senator John Coghill, who has spearheaded the criminal-justice-reform efforts. “We can’t afford to keep doing it the way we used to.”
Coghill has been on the state’s judiciary committee for most of his 17 years in the legislature. But it wasn’t until about two years ago that he got together with other members of the legislature to propose a major overhaul. Coghill was struck by how much the state’s prison population was increasing, even as crime decreased. The bill he introduced in 2014 upped the use of electronic monitoring, incentivized substance-abuse treatment, and created a bipartisan commission to come up with even more reforms. Perhaps more significantly, it relieved the state of having to spend even more money on corrections.