Senate Finance Committee members said Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “War on Criminals” is lip service, based on his FY 2020 budget cuts to departments tasked to deal with crime.
After a tense budget overview Thursday, Senate Finance continued looking at individual departments Friday, February 15, picking apart the Department of Law and the Department of Corrections (DOC).
DOC is slated for a $19 million cut, with a $30 million reduction in UGF.
Dunleavy has proposed a series of crime bills to roll back criminal justice reform efforts. If passed, they would result in more incarcerations for nonviolent offenses.
The bills are expected to cost at least $39 million in FY 2020, growing every year thereafter.
Senate Finance members worried that the Dunleavy administration is not adequately anticipating the resulting growth in prosecutions and incarcerations.
Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) said undoing criminal justice reform alone will actually cost between $60 million and $80 million a year, with deeper impacts to the underlying department budgets.
“The folks in my district and the folks around the state are demanding a significant response to the crime issue, and the key departments that are going to be dealing with that issue are either flat or reduced in cost in this budget. That doesn’t work,” Micciche declared during the hearing. “It seems like there’s not a connection between the significant changes in the crime bills and what that cost is going to represent.”
Sen. Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel) pointed to the reductions at the Department of Law.
“How does that coincide with the governor’s position in his State of the State to be tough on crime? What will you not be doing as a result of the reduction of $1.8 million? That seems substantial, in my view,” said Hoffman. “Can you explain how the department is going to implement being tough on crime, which was well received, I think, by the legislature and the people of Alaska?”
Anna Kim, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) administrative service director for the Department of Law, responded that the department will prioritize within available resources.
“The explanation seems lacking to me,” said a disappointed Hoffman. “The people of Alaska deserve an answer of what is not going to be performed as a result of this reduction.”
Hoffman highlighted the phrase “within the given resources.”
“Those resources are diminished,” he noted. “If you do not put the resources there, things are going to slide. Like you said, you are going to prioritize. The prioritization as a result of that means that something is not going to be met.”
“The governor said that we are going to make sure that people are going to be put behind bars if they commit crimes,” Hoffman continued. “How can that statement be true if we actually have a reduction in budgets across the board?”
“What I’m hearing at the end of this table is lip service to the issue,” he concluded.
“Is your department going to be capable of handling increased activity in the criminal division without accelerating plea bargains by telephone to distant court houses and other things of that nature?” Senate Finance Co-chair Bert Stedman (R-Sitka) asked.
The department is adding positions, replied Ed Sniffen, chief of staff to Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, though he said he would have to confer with other members of the department on long-distance plea bargains.
“Do you feel that there’s any added budgetary pressure put on the department that would push the department to plea bargain to lower criminal sentences to alleviate your budget pressures?” Stedman asked.
“That certainly isn’t the focus,” Sniffen responded. “The issue of saving money isn’t something that, I don’t think, enters into the equation when we’re talking about plea bargaining cases.”
Sniffen said that public safety is the first concern in a plea bargain. Generally, the budget isn’t a consideration.
Stedman told OMB Director Donna Arduin that if there is pressure on prosecutors to plea bargain, the Senate Finance Committee would prefer a supplemental budget increase.
“The department just said that wasn’t an issue,” Arduin insisted.
She reiterated that the priority is to keep Alaskans safe.
Keep them safe on a priority basis, Hoffman interjected sardonically.
Law Officials Unsure Prosecutors Sufficient to Handle Increasing Case Loads
Five prosecutors were added in last year’s budget but not fully funded. Dunleavy proposes to fully fund those positions this year.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) noted that Law has lost dozens of positions over several years of budget cuts, resulting in the inability to prosecute thousands of crimes.
Even with the ten new prosecutors, Wielechowski said, “You’re still not getting back to the level before we were letting 5,000 criminals set free. So are you saying that we are not going to have any criminals being set free? You have enough prosecutors to prosecute all the crimes in the state of Alaska?”
Sniffen said that changing the sentencing laws helps, too, not just additional prosecutors.
Sen. David Wilson (R-Wasilla) said that currently, 34 percent of misdemeanors and 15-18 percent of felonies are not prosecuted.
“How will that percentage decrease with the presented budget today or with the additional crime bills?” he asked.
Sniffen did not have an answer.
Micciche returned to the crime bill package and its impact on the budget.
“I don’t see the corresponding changes accounting for that obviously dramatically increasing case load, and I’m very worried about that,” he said. “I know we want to show the numbers as being a significant reduction, but can you honestly say that you’re comfortable with these changes? That you’re going to actually be able to handle that case load without a — Okay, $1.6 billion in reductions. Are we going to have a $1.7 billion supplemental next year?”
Arduin told Micciche that if it turns out Law needs additional resources, OMB will ask for them.
Sen. Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks) said he didn’t think criminal justice reform had been given adequate time or money to work.
“What I don’t want to do is lowball this number… and a year from now, nothing has changed,” he said of the new crime package.
Pressing for clarification, Bishop asked if Dunleavy will stay his veto pen should the legislature add money to the Law budget.
“I can’t give you an answer right now,” replied Arduin. “We’ll leave that for the governor to analyze the final budget.”
Sen. Micciche Argues Against Closure of Wildwood Correctional Center
Dunleavy’s budget proposes closing two buildings at Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai used for housing up to 330 sentenced inmates. It anticipates a savings of $6 million.
Closing Wildwood would cost 46 Alaskans their jobs.
“Some of these employees learned on the news that their jobs were on the table. I just ask to please, through all the departments as we work through this process, please take the time to notify those employees respectfully,” Micciche told OMB.
“Instead of informing our hockey coaches and church elders and community leaders that are the professionals at Wildwood that they’re losing their jobs and should start planning to move to take another position, I guess I would say that they shouldn’t probably start their garage sale planning yet,” he began.
Micciche explained his opposition to closure of Wildwood is not because it is in his district. Rather, it is because the facility is designed to house a large number of low-level offenders at a time when the crime bills would increase incarceration for those crimes.
The fiscal note for SB 32 estimates the bill would increase the average daily prison population by 529 inmates at a cost of $41.5 million by the third year of implementation and every year thereafter.
“Why are you looking at bringing down the facility that’s fit for purpose for the types of crimes that we’re going to be incarcerating for a relatively short time?” Micciche asked.
“The people in my district are very tired of having their homes broken into, having their vehicles stolen, and having their chainsaws lifted out of their sheds on a repeated basis. And we’re going to change the laws to deal with that,” he assured. “Yet we’re cutting short the very departments that we’re charging with turning around crime in this state. And we’re shutting down the lowest cost-per-unit facility in order to do that. That makes no sense to anyone, other than someone looking to simply plug some numbers into a reduction in this budget.”
Sylvan Robb, OMB’s administrative service director for DOC, told Micciche that most Alaska prisons don’t have three buildings like Wildwood. (The third building is for housing those awaiting sentencing.)
Robb added that closing the facility will save costs on transporting inmates back and forth to court.
“That actually made less sense,” responded Micciche.
He noted Wildwood is just a couple miles from the courthouse.
Bishop, who previously served as commissioner of the Department of Labor, said Wildwood has vocational training assets to help teach inmates a trade.
“We need to get these people careers and get them back into productive members of society,” he advised.
Plan to Ship 500 Inmates Outside Likely to Save Money, But Could Harm State
Under Dunleavy’s budget, DOC would ship at least 500 inmates Outside at a cost of $17.8 million. There is an unallocated cut to DOC of $30.6 million based on estimated savings for personnel, health care, utilities, and commodities.
There was little information in OMB’s presentation beyond the expected savings, noted Senate Finance Co-chair Natasha von Imhof (R-Anchorage).
“What about a timeframe?” she asked. “What about where they’re going to go? What about what kind of experience and impact that’s going to have on the economy of Alaska? What about an explanation of how you’re going to try to implement this and roll it out? These are the kinds of things that if the legislature and the public is really going to understand these structural changes, five bullet points on a slide is not even scratching the surface.”
Despite numerous requests from Senate Finance, the presentation combined fund sources, clouding spending.
For example, Dunleavy’s budget proposes a $154 million systemwide UGF cut to the University of Alaska, yet increases receipt authority by an equal amount. If the University brought in $154 million in tuition, or designated general funds (DGF), it would look like there was flat funding.
“I don’t want to play into the populism of not separating the two on the growth because, as they continue to talk about a fee for service option, we’re discouraging that potential for services that folks may choose to fund through DGF. I think we have to shine a light on those differences,” Micciche said of the Dunleavy administration.
In an interview with Alaska Public Media, Alaskan Karl Vandenhuerk described a private prison in Arizona, where he was sent by DOC, as “lawless.”
Wielechowski warned against sending inmates back Outside based on similar news reports.
“They learned new tricks of the trade. They were housed with hardened criminals. They learned all kinds of new things. Then when they got released, they came back to Alaska, and they brought their gangs back to Alaska. I think this is a terrible idea to send these inmates out of state. There’s a reason we stopped it years ago,” Wielechowski said.
Goose Creek Correctional Center was built to bring back Alaska inmates who were housed Outside. But Stedman estimated that facility could be shuttered and its debt paid off, yet still realize $20 million in savings from shipping inmates Outside.
“Building another prison is not likely from what I can see,” Stedman said.
DOC Deputy Commissioner Kelly Goode affirmed that, while Alaska prisons are at 94 percent capacity, “We do not have a plan for an additional facility.”
DOC is researching what it would cost to reopen the Palmer Correctional Center, but it has no plans to do so, she added.
Micciche reiterated that closing Wildwood is foolish, especially when the crime bills will generate inmates beyond the 500 existing ones DOC plans to send Outside.
“Instead of focusing on bringing down the in-state costs, you’re going to be shipping those jobs elsewhere. And I’m in favor of the long-term folks being incarcerated at the lowest cost possible. The problem I’m seeing is that this exercise was largely done without the input of corrections professionals and was done looking for numbers for reductions,” he said.
Wielechowski said that Arduin served on the Board of GEO Group, a private prison company, and asked her if she had had conversations with private prisons related to the plan to ship out 500 Alaska inmates.
“I was not on the Board of GEO,” she corrected. “I have no connections with private prisons, and I have not had any conversations with them.”
That is partly true.
While Arduin was not on the GEO Group Board, she was on the board of trustees for CentraCore Properties Trust, the real estate arm of GEO Group. At least at one time, she absolutely had connections with private prisons.
Goode insisted that DOC has had no conversations with private prisons, except to enquire whether they have available beds. If they do send prisoners Outside, they will follow the procurement process, she said.
Stedman announced that Senate Finance will examine the budgets of the Department of Military & Veterans’ Affairs and the Judiciary on Monday. If they have time, they will get into the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED).
The DEED budget includes a $269 million cut to the K-12 education formula and the elimination of all funding for pre-K, the State Council on the Arts, and the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho (WWAMI) Medical Education program.
A budget analysis by the Legislative Finance Division could happen Friday, but will likely happen the following Monday, February 25.
Stedman said they will take the time to examine each department in detail.
“If it takes us into the following week, so be it,” he said.
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