Alaska Correctional Populations, 1980–1992

Alaska Correctional Populations, 1980-1992

N.E. Schafer and Melissa S. Green

Schafer, N.E.; & Green, Melissa S. (1992). "Alaska Correctional Populations, 1980-1992." Alaska Justice Forum 9(3): 1, 5-7 (Fall 1992). While the growth in Alaska's prison population is of especial concern because of the cost of building and operating prisons, the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) also includes a substantial number of convicted offenders serving part or all of their sentences under some form of community-based supervision. This article presents population figures for prisoners, probationers, parolees, and community corrections residents under DOC jurisdiction from February 1980 to September 1992. During this period Alaska's total correctional population peaked at 6,282 in October 1990.

In the last issue of the Alaska Justice Forum we discussed the great increase in the number of people incarcerated by the State of Alaska over the last decade. We included Alaska prisoners in federal prisons and held under contract in institutions in Minnesota and North Dakota, as well as those held awaiting trial or sentencing in Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities. But the prison population today constitutes only 40.4 per cent of the total number of offenders under the control of DOC. In this issue we examine changes in that total number, as well as changes in its various parts.

While the growth in the prison population is of especial concern to the public because of the cost of building and operating prisons, the Department of Corrections also includes under its auspices a substantial number of convicted offenders serving part or all of their sentences under some form of community-based supervision.

The Division of Community Corrections within DOC oversees offenders on probation and parole. Probationers are offenders with suspended prison sentences who will remain in the community under DOC supervision for a specified period. If an offender successfully completes this period of probation he will be discharged without having served any prison time; if he violates supervision conditions his probation can be revoked and the offender will then complete the sentence in prison. Some probationary offenders receive "split sentences," i.e., they are required to serve a specific amount of time in prison and then a specific period of time on probation.

Parolees are offenders who are released from prison before serving complete terms on the basis of accumulated "good time." Parolees are supervised by DOC probation officers. If a parolee violates his supervision conditions, parole can be revoked and the offender is returned to, prison to serve more of the sentence.

As Figure 1 shows, the total DOC population largely comprises probationers and prisoners. During the period covered by the study, the number of offenders on probation has tended to increase in concert with the number incarcerated. Over the study period there has been a 179. 7 per cent increase in the number of persons under probation supervision. However, while prisoners and probationers together account for a majority of the total number of offenders under DOC control today, they have decreased as a proportion of the total DOC population from over 90 per cent in the earlier part of the study period to just under 80 per cent today.

Figure 1. Persons Under the Jurisdiction of the Alaska Department of Corrections, Monthly Population Figures, February 1980-September 1992

The number of people on parole has increased by 600 per cent over the decade studied. Until 1983 there were fewer than 200 parolees under supervision. In 1987 the number reached 400; in 1990, 600; and in three months of 1991 there were over 1000 parolees. In September 1992 there were 938 parolees under the jurisdiction of the DOC. These 938 parolees formed 15.2 per cent of the total DOC population in September 1992. In contrast, parolees were only 6.2 per cent of the total six years earlier and 7.4 per cent at the beginning of the study period.

The number of residents of community corrections centers has also increased over the last decade. Offenders in community corrections centers may be required to reside in these facilities as a condition of probation or parole, or they may be furloughed from institutions in a kind of pre-parole status. (They reside in the centers and may leave during the day to go to their jobs or to attend classes.) The number of beds available in community residential programs has increased, as has the population to fill them. In September 1980 there were 28 people living in community corrections centers - about 1.5 per cent of the total DOC population. In September 1992 there were 325 residents of community centers - 5.3 per cent of the total DOC population.

During the twelve-year period charted in the Figure 1, the total DOC population increased 245.6 per cent-from 1779 in February 1980 to 6149 in September 1992. To gain a perspective on this increase, we might look at the change in state population, which rose 36.88 per cent between the federal census periods of April 1980 and April 1990 (Alaska Population Overview: 1990 Census & Estimates, Alaska Department of Labor, 1991). From April 1980 to April 1990 the DOC population increased 234.5 per cent (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Alaska, Total DOC, and Prison Population Trends, 1980-1992

Another way of examining this increase is to compute changes in the rate at which Alaskans come under the auspices of DOC. Our incarceration rate has long been one of the highest in the nation. In 1989, the last year for which data were listed, the Alaska incarceration rate was 361 per 100,000 residents, an increase of 153 per cent over the 1980 rate of 143 per 100,000 residents (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics-1990, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1991). When all forms of correctional control are included, the total DOC population showed an increase of 144.4 per cent. We use the 1980 and 1990 April census figures and the April 1980 and 1990 DOC data to compute a rate of 451.7 per 100,000 Alaska residents in 1980 and 1103.9 per 100,000 residents in 1990.

The dramatic increases in the number of Alaskans under the jurisdiction of the Alaska DOC are not easy to explain. In their annual report for 1991, Department of Corrections officials suggested that presumptive sentencing, mandated by the revised criminal code which took effect in 1980, had contributed to the overall increase in the prison population by creating a backlog of prisoners who would not be released for specific periods. The implication was that the prison population would begin to level off as more presumptively sentenced prisoners reached their mandatory release dates. Certainly the increase in the number of parolees appears to attest to this assumption. However, presumptive sentencing does not contribute to the corresponding increase in the number of persons on probation, although an increase in split sentences would contribute to increases in both incarceration and probation categories.

It is, of course, axiomatic that new criminal laws will create new criminals. However, the penal code has not changed substantially during the period studied here. Increased police and court resources may explain part of the increase, and incentives for the police to make drug arrests may also be contributing. A lack of alternative sanctions may also be part of the explanation. (Between 1982 and 1986, for example, the Department of Law operated a diversion program which removed offenders from the system prior to trial. During the period of full operation, 500 to 650 persons per year were diverted from the system without coming under the control of DOC.) Yet another explanation may be political: the criminal justice system accommodates what is perceived to be a change toward retribution in public opinion through changes in arrest and charging decisions, or by increased penalties, such as adding supervision to fine or restitution orders.

The increases in correctional clients have been costly. The Department of Corrections operating budget in FY 1980 was $21,599,000 (Alaska Department of Corrections, 1980). It is now over $100,000,000. Although prison operations require two-thirds of the correctional budget, the other forms of correctional control are not without cost.

Nancy Schafer is a professor with the Justice Center; Melissa Green is the Center publication specialist.