Trends in Alaska Offender Demographics

Trends in Alaska Offender Demographics

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Fall 2012-Winter 2013). "Trends in Alaska Offender Demographics." Alaska Justice Forum 29(3-4): 4-5. An aging offender population, a change in the proportion of offenders sentenced for violent versus non-violent crimes, an increase in offenders in community residential caenters and offiste programs, and an increase in average length of stay for felony and misdemeanor convictions are among the trends in Alaska offender demographics as described in the Alaska Department of Corrections 2011 offender profile.

An Aging Offender Population

The "changing face of corrections" and emerging trends are highlighted in the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) "2011 Offender Profile." A major trend is the aging of the offender population. Since 2007, the population of offenders 65 years of age or more has risen by 55 percent: from 53 individuals in 2007 to 82 in 2011. (See Table 1.) The number of offenders over the age of 50 has increased each year also: from 573 in 2007 to 748 in 2011-an increase of 31 percent over that period. Although offenders between the ages of 25 and 29 made up nearly 20 percent of the 2011offender population, Alaska's older prison population is growing. In 2011, 16 percent of Alaska's offender population was age 50 or older. This is a nationwide trend in state and federal correctional institutions, and its impact on correctional budgets in the areas of health care and other resources has been the subject of recent reports by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.

Human Rights Watch released a January 2012 report, Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States, which explores the impact of incarceration on aging prisoners and catalogs the increasing cost of medical care for older prisoners and overall cost to society of current policies. The report also looks at the issue of continuing to incarcerate the very elderly who, because of mental or other medical issues, no longer pose a threat to society, and receive limited benefit from rehabilitative programs. In some cases, offenders may no longer understand why they are behind bars. The full report is available at http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/usprisons0112webwcover_0.pdf.

The ACLU also issued a study in 2012, At America's Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly, which examines the "graying prison population" and the costs to society. In 2010, 16 percent of persons in state and federal prisons were over the age of 50-the age, according to the report, that criminologists and correctional experts agree denotes an "aging" or "elderly" prisoner. The study includes recommendations ranging from conditional release, new parole board guidelines, and a pilot program for parole for federal prisoners (federal prisoners who were sentenced for an offense committed after November 1, 1987 are not eligible for parole but may be sentenced to probation or supervised release), to systemic reform that calls for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, habitual offender laws, and truth-in-sentencing laws. (Truth-in-sentencing laws were passed to ensure that violent offenders served 80 percent of their imposed prison sentence, and many states enacted these laws in response to the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (amended 1996).) The full report is available at https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/elderlyprisonreport_20120613_1.pdf.

While the number of offenders over the age of 50 has been increasing in Alaska, the total of incarcerated juvenile offenders (individuals less than 20 years old) has dropped from 129 in 2007 to 78 in 2011. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Trends in Offender Demographics: Offenders in Institutions, 2007-2011

Violent v. Nonviolent Offenses

The" 2011 Offender Profile" also shows a change in the number of offenders sentenced for violent versus non-violent crimes. In 2007, almost 46 percent of offenders in Alaska correctional facilities were there as a result of a violent crime. By 2011, this trend had reversed, and almost 60 percent of offenders in Alaska correctional institutions were there because of a non-violent crime. (See Table 2.) This is in contrast to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures from 2009 (the most recent data available) that showed nationwide, 53 percent of individuals in jails or prisons were sentenced for a violent offense.

Table 2. Trends in Offender Demographics: Offenders in Institutions as a Result of Violent Crimes, 2007-2011

Other Trends Seen in Alaska Data

Non-Institutionalized Offender Numbers

While the number of offenders in Alaska correctional institutions increased by about 5 percent from 2007 to 2011, during that same time period, the number of offenders in community residential centers (CRCs) rose by 26 percent, and the number in special offsite programs (electronic monitoring) was up by 130 percent. (See Table 3.)

Table 3. Trends in Offender Demographics: Offenders in Community Residential Centers (CRC) and Special Offsite Programs, 2007-2011

Average Length of Stay for Felony and Misdemeanor Convictions

Data from the Alaska Department of Corrections from 2007 through 2011 show that average length of stay from conviction to discharge for a felony has been increasing each year-from an average stay of about 4.5 years in 2007 to an average stay of almost 6 years in 2011. Average length of stay for a misdemeanor conviction from 2007 to 2011 has remained relatively the same-about 19 days.

Average length of stays for drug-related felonies increased from an average of about 3 years in 2007 to almost 4 years in 2011. Drug-related misdemeanor stays have remained fairly stable at about 22 days-although there was a spike in 2008 of an average stay of about 32 days. (See Table 4.) The increase in average sentence length warrants investigation to accurately determine its causes.

Table 4. Average Length of Stay from Conviction to Discharge, 2002-2011