Guest blog post: How cost-benefit analysis helps Alaska get smarter on crime

By , November 7, 2013
Teri Carns

Teri White Carns

Teri White Carns is a senior staff associate with the Alaska Judicial Council, where she has worked since 1974, directing many of its research projects. The council staffs Alaska’s Criminal Justice Working Group, a state-level commissioners and directors group that focuses on collaborating to guide policy and resolve interbranch problems.

Cost-benefit analyses have been directly shaping Alaska’s decisions about criminal justice policy since 2009. In January of that year, the University of Alaska’s Institute for Economic and Social Research (ISER) told legislators that the state could spend $4 million annually to expand existing evidence-based programs and reduce the projected 2030 prison population by 10 percent. This would allow Alaska to avoid $321 million in costs, in part by delaying prison construction costs. ISER’s report, “The Cost of Crime,” brought together state data on recidivism and evidence-based programs, and used methods developed by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy’s Steve Aos and others to do a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) requested by the legislature. The report found that focusing on education and substance abuse programs would be the most effective use of state resources.

Although Alaska has not adopted a formal CBA approach for all new criminal justice policies, the effects of the “Cost of Crime” report are reflected in many decisions made in the past four years:

  • The legislature funded and later expanded substance abuse treatment programs for incarcerated offenders, based on the findings that these programs reduce recidivism and are cost-effective. The department’s internal evaluations show promising results.
  • Prisoner reentry has become a major focus for the Alaska Department of Corrections. The department reorganized its staffing and created a deputy commissioner position focused on reentry and rehabilitation. The Alaska Prisoner Reentry Task Force pulled together groups involved in prisoner reentry, community agencies, private-sector partners, and state funding to create and implement a five-year strategic plan. One outcome is a new Partners Reentry Center, supported by a three-year, $1.8 million legislative grant, that will assist newly released offenders with housing, employment and education searches, and sober support services. Local reentry coalitions, new approaches to diverting misdemeanor offenders in Anchorage from incarceration, and efforts to identify and reduce collateral consequences are in full swing as a result of the task force’s efforts.
  • At least three of the “smart on crime” bills legislators introduced this year will be active during a new session that starts in January. One bill increases the value limits for most property offenses, to bring them more into line with the current economy and to reduce the number of offenders subject to felony penalties. A second reduces most drug-possession offenses from the lowest level of felony to the highest level of misdemeanor, again with the goal of reducing the number of offenders subject to presumptive sentences, almost all of which result in incarceration. The third bill would create a sentencing commission, in part to review best practices and recommend those that appear to have the best chance of reducing recidivism while meeting other sentencing goals. The commission would address “the relationship between sentencing priorities and correctional resources” and other considerations Proponents of these bills have routinely framed the discussion by stating that public safety is best served by cost-effective, evidence-based programs.
  • In 2010, Anchorage started a pilot program for probationers, based on the Hawaii HOPE Program: Probation Accountability with Certain Enforcement (PACE). The PACE program is intended to reduce the length and complexity of court processes, and to decrease costs and recidivism. Encouraged by promising preliminary results, the legislature established a similar program for misdemeanor domestic violence offenders in Fairbanks; the Palmer Superior Court started its own PACE program; and other courts are considering or have adopted PACE principles. A bill pending in the legislature would require that the Department of Corrections establish a program using PACE principles for probationers and parolees.
  • Alaska’s Criminal Justice Working Group, an informal collaborative group co-chaired by the Attorney General and a justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, meets regularly to resolve interbranch and interagency problems and consider criminal justice policies. The group’s efforts to improve public safety consistently take cost-effectiveness into account.

The language of “smart on crime” and cost-effective, evidence-based practices permeates Alaska’s criminal justice discussions. Without being formally adopted, cost-benefit perspectives have changed the shape of the policies being considered. Reentry, rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism are joining restitution and victims’ needs on the public safety agenda, with the recognition that these approaches work together to reduce crime and improve the lives of all Alaskans.

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