Justice bill discussed at Kawerak/Rural providers conference
As part of a two-year partnership, Kawerak teamed up with RurAL CAP and hosted the 33rd Rural Providers conference in conjunction with the annual Kawerak gathering, held in Nome last week.
The conference was themed “Carving a Path to Wellness” and addressed in workshops and keynote speeches the challenges faced in this region and statewide, including historical trauma, substance abuse and a justice track, but also offered discussion to begin finding solutions that work at the community level.
Keynote speakers included Marjorie Tahbone, speaking of her pride to be an Inupiaq, finding that her passion to perpetuate her culture is through the long-lost art of traditional tattooing.
Lucy Apatiki of Gambell spoke about intergenerational historical trauma.
On Thursday, Dr. Linda Chamberlain, professor at University of Alaska and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, spoke about the effects of childhood trauma, including the trauma inflicted when children were sent to residential schools and out of their home and communities. A brain cannot learn when it’s occupied with survival, she said. Research in the field of adverse childhood experiences shows that children who experience scary situations on a regular basis cannot learn properly. “When under stress and in survival mode, we cannot use our brain to think,” she said. “Some stress is good, it keeps the neurons firing, but when things get scary and overwhelming, the heart begins to race, the digestion shuts down and the tummy starts aching. If we feel that all the time, then stress gets to be toxic.”
Dr. Chamberlain said that data shows by the age of 15, one third of children in a class room has experienced two or three traumatic events in their short life time.
She suggested to involve school districts in talking about how trauma affects learning. “We need not to re-traumatize them or punish the children when they can’t sit still but help them find a safe place,” she said. If children don’t have a place or person to turn to in distress, she said, they learn early how to self medicate. What may start with cough syrup can lead to substance abuse and even suicidal tendencies. “We cannot understand suicide without understanding the underlying trauma,” she said.
Justice delivery overhaul
As part of the justice track of the conference, the executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council Susanne DiPietro spoke about the recently enacted Senate Bill 91 that aimed to overhaul the Alaska justice system. DiPietro was member of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, created by the legislature in 2014 to develop data-based policy recommendations to control costs associated with the Dept. of Corrections and while still holding public safety paramount. “The commission looked at the Alaska prison population and found that it has been growing faster than the crime rate,” DiPietro said. “That suggested that people are in prison for a longer time.” She said that research found that 28 percent of all prisoners — currently about 5,000 in Alaska — were held pre-trial and had not been convicted. Some were charged with not very serious crimes and sometimes people were in jail longer than their eventual sentences. Fifty percent of all people arrested and charged were never released until their trial.
Hence, Alaskan prisons are overflowing and prisoners had to be sent out of state.
According to DiPietro, the reforms through SB91 aim to avert prison growth and to shrink the Alaska prison population, saving the state an estimated $380 million over the next 10 years. Also, the bill aims to reinvest nearly $100 million in infrastructure to avert recidivism and to support crime victims.
To counter clogging up the state’s jail with offenders waiting for their trial, sections in the new bill create a pre-trial services department, which will be charged to assess the prisoner and help judges and the attorneys to determine whether a person can be safely released to the community until their trial is held. This, she said, is a very technical assessment. “It will take a long time to develop that tool,” DiPietro said. This will not go into effect until 2018.
She urged the workshop participants to carefully read the version of SB91 that passed as there were many different versions circulating around prior to passage. She also said to be mindful about dates when different sections of the law go into effect.
Another astonishing find by the commission was that most prison beds are taken up by low-level misdemeanor offenders. “Those are the people that “annoy” us, not the ones we should be afraid of,” she said. But, what happens if those offenders get mixed in with the bona fide “bad guys”, is that they get worse. As low-level offenders go through the system, lose their jobs, homes and sometimes their family, “we sweep their legs right underneath them and introduce them to serious offenders,” DiPietro said. This is the beginning of the downward spiral that leads to recidivism. Two-thirds of prisoners come back to prison within three years.
“That’s a terrible recidivism rate,” she said.
Under the new law, pre-trial jail time is reduced. The same approach was taken with controlled substance offenders. There, a distinction is being made between possession and distribution. The bill aims to get treatment to those caught in possession and to get dealers off the street. For possession, the new law reduces the classification of possession of all controlled substances to a class A misdemeanor and eliminates imposition of imprisonment time for the first two possession offenses. The legislature decided to reinvest almost $99 million in treatment programs to counter recidivism.
A big part of success hinges on how the re-entry from prison back into the community is structured. According to comments during the meeting, there is no re-entry service center here in Nome. In Anchorage, a center exists that directs prisoners who literally step out of jail with the belongings in hand and sets them up with housing, treatment, credit services, job training and mentoring programs.
According to Dept. of Corrections public information officer Corey Allen-Young, Anvil Mountain Correctional Center is a short term and pre-trial facility and the average length of stays at AMCC is 316 days. While at AMCC, inmates have access to services that treat substance abuse. Allen-Young wrote an email correspondence with the Nugget that “AMCC has a contract with Akeela to offer psycho-educational Substance Abuse Services Program, which is an evidence based program. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are held weekly when a facilitator is available. AMCC has several contracts with Norton Sound Behavioral Health Services that offers mental health counseling, as well as case management to assist this special needs population transition successfully back into the community.”
While at AMCC, prisoners can take advantage of several programs in the learning center ranging from adult basic education classes, GED Courses, non-credit post-secondary education, post secondary education (universities courses are available at the student’s own expense), a pre-release program (involving different community agencies that prepare inmates for release: job assistance, financial assistance, vocational training, transitional training); mini-vocational courses such as small engine repair, flagger courses; correspondence/independent study courses; Criminal Attitude Program (CAP); parenting classes; Mavis Beacon typing; Drivers Education / CDL; NCCER (carpentry core curriculum or Level 1 carpentry); Medic First Aid; AMSEA Marine Survival and Drill Conductor training; Monitor Heater maintenance and repair; and Small Business basics.
“Because the details and specifics of SB 91 as it pertains to the Department of Corrections are still being worked out, it’s too soon to speculate on what new programs, tasks, re-entry centers AMCC will offer,” wrote Allen-Young in response to the question how SB91 could change re-entry possibilities for Nome and regional inmates. “The intended goal of the Department of Corrections is always to reduce recidivism and that will remain a focus as SB 91 and all of its parts are implemented moving forward.”
Several other overhauls of the law include new eligibility criteria for parole, i.e. geriatric parole for prisoners who did not commit unclassified or sexual offenses, and new probation regulations that punish probation violations right away, not severe at first, but after the third violation consequences do get harsher.
The unusual factor in this justice bill overhaul is not only that the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission made significant contributions to it, but also that the ACJC will monitor how the overhaul works and if statistics support the assumptions that were made when crafting the bill, DiPietro said. Until the year 2021, the ACJC will get quarterly reports from the Dept. of Corrections, the Dept. of Public Safety, Dept. of Health and Social Services and the Court system to determine trends and see if the law works as it was intended.