Dean Williams is the Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner. (Emily Files)

Dean Williams is the Alaska Department of Corrections Commissioner. (Emily Files)

Significant changes are on the way for Alaska’s community jails. That was the message Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams brought to Haines this week. He says state budget cuts are dovetailing with a crime reform bill to instigate a shift away from imprisonment and toward prevention.

Williams is taking the unusual step of visiting all 15 remote Alaska communities that are part of DOC’s Community Jails Program. Haines is one of them.

“If there’s one good thing about this fiscal crisis we’re in, it’s that it puts things back on the table and challenges us to do things in different ways,” Williams said.

He says he knows his face-to-face visits make some worry that there are more budget cuts coming to community jails. Haines lost about $170,000 in FY16 and now receives about $200,000 to support the local police department and the six-bed jail it oversees. But Williams says that’s not the main point of this trip.

“Am I guaranteeing Haines and every other community that I’m visiting that no cut is coming? No. I can’t say that because the budget’s not in my control, I have to deal with the cards I’m dealt,” Williams said. “So I guess my message is this, let’s talk about how your community jails are operating, let’s see if there’s something else we can do that helps your community, that helps me too.”

Williams says the main incentive for his trip is Senate Bill 91. The criminal justice reform bill was enacted by the Legislature earlier this year. It’s already diminished penalties for some non-violent crimes. Williams says one of its major goals is to reduce the state’s prison population.

“A big part of growth in the prison system in Alaska has been on the front end, or pretrial — people awaiting trial that have not been found guilty of anything. And in some cases, they spend more time in jail than the actual sentence that would be given to them.”

A lot of pretrial inmates are locked up in community jails. The 15 jails are spread from Unalaska to Craig. In some cases, the facilities allow people accused of crimes to be held  locally as they wait for  their court date, instead of getting transferred to a correction facility in Juneau or Anchorage.

SB 91 requires DOC to set up a pretrial services program. Its aim is to fill fewer prison beds with people who’ve been charged but not convicted.

“The hard beds are a commodity and we should be putting people there that really do scare us,” Williams said.

Lowering the number of people held behind bars would theoretically weaken demand for community jails.

“There are kind of two choices that communities have. If this bill works the way it’s supposed to work, less people are going to be coming to community jails, period. Which makes them less necessary on one hand. But conversely, if I try to shift some [prevention] efforts locally, then the community jails and the local police departments take on a more important role, a more significant role. And I want to advance that.”

Williams gives a couple examples of services that could shift to local law enforcement. One is electronic monitoring. Instead of locking a defendant up before their court date, a pretrial program might monitor them so they can continue going to work and following their normal routine. Another is probation. Right now, Haines residents on felony probation are supervised out of Juneau. Williams wants to re-examine that.

“Senate Bill 91 is going to change the structure of things. So this effort for me early on is for us to start discussing that sooner rather than later.”

Visiting the towns where community jails are located has been enlightening, Williams says. Conversations with police chiefs and municipal leaders have been great. But in some cases, he’s seen startling things. For example, some people are spending way too long, up to 40 or 50 days, in community jails.

“There’s also a case where someone is sitting in the Anchorage jail for literally, like, public urination or something. And the guy’s been in the Anchorage jail for a $250 bail bond that he can’t pay. He’s been sitting in my Anchorage jail for a couple months…So when you hear stories like that you realize for heaven’s sake, we’re missing it. You realize there are things you weren’t aware of.”

Williams hopes what he takes away from these visits, in conjunction with SB 91, will change the picture of imprisonment in Alaska. He says community jails could become an even more useful resource by funneling effort into prevention over punishment.