Alternatives to Incarceration: Suggestions from the Past

Alternatives to Incarceration: Suggestions from the Past

N.E. Schafer and A.B. Dellinger

Schafer, N.E.; & Dellinger, A.B. (1993). "Alternatives to Incarceration: Suggestions from the Past." Alaska Justice Forum 9(4): 1, 6-8 (Winter 1993). Crowded prisons and a runaway corrections budget have led many in Alaska to call for alternatives to incarceration. Before an alternative sentencing program is initiated, certain questions about it should be addressed: (1) Is it a genuine alternative to incarceration? (2) Is it fair? (3) Is it good for the community, the offender, and the victim? This article examines evidence from a former alternative program, the Alaska Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI), as a basis for discussing these questions in the belief this may prove instructive in establishing new alternatives.

Crowded prisons and a runaway corrections budget have led many in Alaska to call for alternatives to incarceration. Before an alternative sentencing program is initiated certain questions about it should be addressed: 1) Is it a genuine alternative to incarceration? 2) Is it fair? 3) Is it good for the community, the offender and the victim? We use data from a previous alternative program, the Alaska Pre-Trial Intervention Program (PTI), as a basis for discussing these questions, in the belief that this may prove instructive in establishing new alternatives.


The Alaska Pre-Trial Intervention Program was a diversion program intended as a cost-efficient alternative disposition for non-dangerous offenders. Eligible offenders were offered a chance to participate before their trials; if they successfully completed the program, charges against them were dropped and the state was saved the time, effort and cost of further processing for this offense. The program required offenders to get help for identified personal problems, engage in community service activities and pay restitution to those who incurred losses as a result of the criminal behavior.

Serving as outside evaluator, the Justice Center worked with the Department of Law to collect and maintain a complete data base on the Pre-Trial Intervention Program, which was in operation statewide in 1983, 1984 and 1985. (In 1986 it was phased out for lack of funding.) During the data collection period, a total of 1865 Alaskans entered the PTI program.

ls the program a genuine alternative to incarceration?

Evaluations of alternative programs in other states have shown that many are not genuine alternatives to incarceration. Because they cost less than incarceration they seem to save money, but because they draw their populations from offenders who would not be headed for prison anyway, they actually add to the overall cost of the system - a result referred to as netwidening because it increases the number of persons held in the criminal justice "net."

In diversion programs elsewhere, prosecutors were found likely to refer persons whose cases were so weak that they would not have been carried forward. Thus, the programs added people to the system rather than subtracting them. However, the Alaska PTI program guidelines directed prosecutors to refer to the program only those offenders whom they would have charged and thus further processed.

Table 1. PTI Clients: Legal Characteristics

The PTI data suggest that the program was, for the most part, a genuine alternative to incarceration. Both the types of offenses and the prior records of the clients indicate that the program involved offenders who would otherwise have continued in the system (see Table 1). However, one Class A misdemeanor which is rarely treated with a formal charge appeared regularly at one PTI location. The charge of minor consuming is usually treated informally, without processing, but appeared as 11.6 per cent of all offenses in the total PTI program sample. The Fairbanks office accounted for 89.1 per cent of these charges, suggesting that in one location people were being added to the system, not subtracted from it. While alternatives to incarceration should accommodate local concerns, they should include continuous monitoring and a means of intervening if netwidening occurs.

Is the program fair?

Assignment to alternative sentencing programs should be fair. Ongoing monitoring of participants should include such factors as socioeconomic level, age, race and sex in order to assure that such sentences have not been inappropriately distributed. Fairness requires that participation in an alternative program not be limited to specific segments of the society, particularly if the offender benefits from participation.

Because PTl offered offenders a means of avoiding the stigma of a criminal conviction, it was a desirable disposition. The data show that the program was broadly available: it was offered in thirteen locations across the state and not limited to urban offenders, as many alternatives might be. We used type of attorney as a measure of income to conclude that diversion was offered to offenders regardless of socioeconomic level. Only 25 per cent of the PTI clients had private attorneys, while 47.2 per cent had either a public defender (41.1%) or a court-appointed attorney (6.1%). A substantial portion (28.1%) entered the program without consulting an attorney.

Alaska minorities tend to be overrepresented in prison populations. Alaska Natives, for example, regularly constitute slightly more than 33 per cent of Alaska prisoners, but only 16 per cent of the general population. A program which offers an alternative to prison should at least approximate such percentages of minority inclusion. We compared the racial distribution of PTI clients with the racial distribution of the general population to conclude that the program was broadly available to a wide spectrum of Alaskans (see Table 2).

Table 2. Distribution of Race by PTI Location

Is the program good for offenders?

Table 3. PTI Clients: Alcohol Characteristics

Avoiding the stigma of conviction is one benefit to offenders, but there were other benefits to PTI participation as well. Participants could live at home and keep their jobs and continue family and community activities. In addition, there were requirements that clients deal with personal problems, particularly those related to their offense behavior. While a variety of treatment activities were required of PTI clients, we use alcohol treatment as our example. Forty per cent of offenders were under the influence of alcohol, alone or in combination with other drugs, at the time of their offense, and 33.6 per cent were identified as having problems with alcohol. Alcohol counseling was a condition of the PTI contracts of 32.8 per cent of PTI clients (N = 611) and a treatment goal of an additional 1.4 per cent (see Table 3). A total of 383 clients completed an alcohol counseling program, 109 partially completed one, and 15 had more alcohol counseling than was required. Thus, 85 per cent of the clients who needed it received help with their alcohol problem.

Alternative sentences should take into consideration the problems behind the offense behavior, include these in offender treatment, and monitor compliance with these treatment conditions.

Is the program good for the community?

Alternative sentencing programs should not pose a risk to the members of the community in which they are located. PTI clients, because of the non-dangerous nature of their offenses, were deemed not to pose a danger to the members of the communities in which they lived. PTI participants remained in their communities, where they could assume their obligations and responsibilities. Forty per cent of the PTI clients were employed at intake. They were able to keep their jobs, which not only contributed to their local economies, but also enabled them to support their dependents. The community benefited by avoiding one of the hidden costs of incarceration - the need to expend resources on the families of the incarcerated.

Communities also benefited from the community service activities required of PTI clients. Community service could be provided only to governmental or nonprofit agencies and could not be used to replace paid workers. A total of 66,063 hours of community service activities were completed by 1534 clients during the three years of data collection. The distribution by PTI location is shown in Table 4. These activities, which involved tasks that might otherwise have gone undone, contributed to improving the community.

Table 4. Restitution and Community Services by PTI Location

Does the program benefit victims?

Many of the offenses with which PTI clients were charged were public order crimes with no identifiable victims (e.g., minor consuming, drug possession, disorderly conduct, etc.), but clients charged with property crimes were required to pay restitution wherever it was appropriate. Altogether, 583 PTI clients paid $376,864 in monetary restitution during the three years studied - an average $646.42 per client. Clearly, many individuals and entities recovered at least some of the losses they incurred. Here, too, the program met a major objective. While new alternative sentencing options may not benefit victims as directly as PTI did, the needs and concerns of victims should be considered in the establishment of alternatives and in the assignment of offenders to them.

Using the past to plan for the future

There is little doubt that Alaska will soon establish mechanisms to make alternative sentences possible. Goals should be established for them and steps should be taken to assure that specific goals are met. The PTI model, which incorporated an independent, outside evaluation, might be considered for assessing whether the program is meeting its goals. If the goal is to reduce the number of people in prison, then the program must draw its population from thbse who are headed for, or are already in, prison. If the goal is to find a sanction which is more punitive than probation but which will not add to the prison population, then increased expenditures, rather than cost savings, will result. In either case the programs should be monitored to ensure that they are imposed in an equitable fashion, that they offer benefits to the community and to victims, and that they make it possible for offenders to address the problems that led to the offense.

Nancy Schafer is a professor with the Justice Center; Amy B. Dellinger is a research associate with the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Unit.