Alaska DOC begins reviewing possible early release for 1,200 prisoners

A DOC team will evaluate the 1,200 inmates to see which of them can shift to supervised early release “with the lowest minimal risk to Alaskan communities”

By Zaz Hollander
Alaska Dispatch News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Alaska Department of Corrections is embarking on a review of the supervised early release of up to 1,200 minimum-security prisoners around Alaska starting next year.

The move comes amid tough budget times as the state analyzes which inmates “need to be in hard beds and which could be placed in a responsible manner” in either halfway houses or on electronic ankle monitoring, said Remond Henderson, the state’s deputy corrections commissioner.

There are about 5,000 people incarcerated in Alaska right now, Henderson said. The review doesn’t include all minimum-security prisoners; the state is not considering sex offenders, arsonists and other inmates ineligible for supervised release, or those currently enrolled in programs they need to finish.

A DOC team will evaluate the 1,200 inmates to see which of them can shift to supervised early release “with the lowest minimal risk to Alaskan communities,” he said in an email.

The review is expected to finish in March, when the releases would begin.

Any cost savings would get rolled into new substance abuse, counseling or other programs to help recently released inmates, Henderson said.

“We have to really look at why they’re in there,” he said. “Are they in there for a serious crime or are they in there because they violated a probation order? We’re finding a good number of individuals are in there for probation or parole violations.”

The way the releases could roll out at Palmer Correctional Center near Sutton, where nearly half of the 326 inmates are minimum security, is generating enough controversy that a Valley legislator convened a field hearing next week to discuss the matter.

The hearing, held by state Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer, a member of the legislative public safety committee, is scheduled for 10 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly chambers in Palmer.

Colver’s office -- along with the general public -- has seen few specifics about the Corrections strategy, including how the state plans to evaluate inmate risk and what treatment or counseling options they’ll have available to them upon release, Colver aide Angie Stephl said Wednesday.

Those unknowns, combined with a recent high-profile murder case involving a defendant who cut off his ankle monitor, is triggering heavy interest from Valley residents already wary of a nonstop string of residential thefts and burglaries the past few years.

Joshua Beebe, a 30-year-old Wasilla resident, was taken into custody by federal marshals in July. He'd cut off his ankle monitor 20 minutes after he was released from jail on prior charges, authorities said. He was indicted on murder charges in the June death of 23-year-old Christopher Seaman, whose body was found in a vehicle at the Big Lake fireworks stands. Beebe was also indicted for assaulting another man five days before the murder.

Seaman’s mother, Terria Walters, is using her son’s death over incarceration.

The idea of supervised early release is expected to generate controversy at the Valley hearing next week.

Palmer-area resident Vicki Wallner is on the list of people signed up to testify at Tuesday’s field hearing.

Wallner, wife of an Alaska State Trooper, formed a virtual neighborhood watch for the Mat-Su in July 2013 with a Facebook group called “Stop Valley Thieves” that now has more than 10,300 members who share warnings about criminal activity as well as photos of stolen goods and thieves caught in the act.

Wallner said she needs more details about the state’s plans at Palmer Correctional, but she expressed doubts about the state’s criteria for determining which inmates get released and also how effective ankle monitors are at keeping the public safe from crime.

She pointed to a case where she helped a crime victim navigate the court process. The defendant received a three-year sentence on top of a previous three-year sentence.

“Six months later, the guy ran into him at the grocery store,” Wallner said. “We’ve got to do something, but I would really be concerned about the people that are getting put out on ankle monitors and what the criteria for the ankle-monitoring program they’re using is.”

Henderson said the state is still developing the matrix the Corrections team will use to determine the eligibility of each prisoner. 

He plans to be at Tuesday's hearing, along with Corrections Commissioner Ronald F. Taylor and other state staffers.

"We want to try and answer as many questions as possible," he said.

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