Funding cut could paralyze city jails

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

HOMER -- In its effort to carve savings from its version of the 2003 operating budget, the Alaska House of Representatives cut all funding for state contracts with 15 communities for the use of their jails.

Unless some funding source is found to cover those Community Jails Program contracts, persons arrested for violating state criminal law or sentenced by the courts for short-term stays behind bars will have to be taken to state facilities because many communities won't be able to afford to keep operating their jails.

"The court remands several prisoners a week to custody. Our jail officers pick them up and put them in jail," said Marc Robl, chief of police in Homer, a city that annually contracts with the state to provide 24-hour jail services. "If that goes out the window, troopers would have to take them to Wildwood (Correctional Center in Kenai). That's a full-time job for a trooper."

Indeed, if communities cannot afford to provide jails, even scofflaws busted by city police would have to be turned over to the state for incarceration. In Homer, for instance, there are no ordinances on the books for which a violation would result in actual arrest. Any arrests, therefore, are for violations of state criminal code, making the violator, ultimately, a state responsibility.

Other cities, such as Juneau, have their own criminal codes.

House lawmakers have proposed diverting money from the earnings of the Alaska Permanent Fund to pay for state programs such as aid to cities and communities, village public safety officer programs and more, including the community jail program. That bill, House Bill 20, is in the House Finance Committee for hearings.

There is no guarantee, however, that the Alaska Senate would approve any measure proposing to tap the permanent fund's earnings.

The community jails budget cut would impact 15 Alaska communities that now contract with the state to provide short-term incarceration for state prisoners, both pre-sentenced and sentenced. In Homer's case, the current contract pays the city $344,000, according to the Corrections Department. The money helps pay for seven jail officers who provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage, as well as other direct costs.

If the contracts aren't renewed, the effects would be immediate.

"First, we'll have to lay off jail officers," Robl said. "If they are not going to fund the jail services, a trooper could make one arrest and tie up his whole shift. It would be terribly inefficient and uneconomical and would cost the troopers (the public safety budget) far more than (lawmakers) would save."

"Obviously it would have a big impact on us, but it would have an even bigger impact on the state," said Seward Chief of Police Mike Chapman. "We don't have any municipal ordinances (that require putting offenders in jail). We'd just hand them over to the troopers."

The situation is the same on the island of Kodiak, where the jail is subsidized by local taxes, said T.C. Kamai, Kodiak's chief of police.

"We operate what is referred to as a tier-three jail," he said. "It's one of the largest and busiest in the state. It would be disastrous for us if we were not funded."

The money the state spends for use of Homer's jail is a downright bargain, Robl said.

"Conservatively speaking, our jail costs about $150,000 a year more than we get funded for," he said.

This year, the state will spend about $4.9 million in administering 15 jail contracts buying the state access to 153 beds. The state could not make up for the loss of those beds in a corrections system already at maximum capacity, said Joe Reeves, deputy director of administrative services for Corrections.

More than that, the added cost of transporting all those prisoners alone would be astronomical, he said.

"We are very concerned," he said. "(The jails) are very important to the state criminal justice system."

Robl said it would turn troopers into high-paid taxi drivers and divert them from other essential duties. That's especially alarming now, because other proposed budget cuts are predicted to result in the loss of as many as 23 trooper positions statewide.

Earlier this week, Lt. Tom Bowman, commander of the troopers' E Detachment on the Kenai Peninsula, said he couldn't afford to lose more officers. He said he has only half the number he needs to do the job right.

Robl, Chapman and Kamai all said they don't believe the current legislative situation will last for long. Some funding will be found somewhere.

"They are going to have to do something," Chapman said. "I don't see that the state can do without them because of the logistics."

"We view corrections as a state responsibility, not a local one," Kamai said.

Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, said he's not sure what's going to happen. He said he knows that good arguments can be made for restoring almost any cut, but something had to be done.

The House has now shifted its focus to finding more money.

"We are trying to push for new revenue streams. I'd love to tell you (the cuts are) all going to go back in. ... But how it ends up in the end will depend on a combination of things. We are trying to get a fiscal plan together."

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