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Haines first community to sign DOC contract focused on pretrial services

Heather Parker with Gov. Walker’s office, DOC Commissioner Dean Williams, Pretrial Director Geri Fox, Haines Mayor Jan Hill, Haines Borough Manager Debra Schnabel and Haines Police Chief Heath Scott pose in a Haines jail cell with a revised community jails contract. (Emily Files)

Gov. Bill Walker is calling on the legislature to make changes to the crime reform bill known as SB 91. But one major part of the law, a pretrial services program, is on track to begin in January. As part of that program, the state wants to shift its relationship with 15 communities that operate rural jails. It will mean more money for local police departments, but also more work on the prevention side of things. Haines is the first community to sign the new contract.

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Last week, Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams crowded into one of Haines’ three jail cells for a photo-op with the borough mayor, manager and police chief.

The local leaders had just signed on to a new contract that pays the borough an extra $30,000 to provide what are call ‘pretrial’ services.

“The biggest growth in our prison population in the state have been this pretrial population,” Williams said.

Williams explained that the goal of Alaska’s new pretrial program is to keep people who aren’t much of a threat out of prison as they await trial or another resolution to their case.

“Imagine there’s two people charged with the same crime, they both get a $1,000 bond put on them because that’s what the traditional system has been,” Williams said. “If you have $1,000 you pay it and get out. If you don’t, you stay in prison until your court date. That is a bad system.”

Williams said this exposes low-level offenders to more serious criminals and it could cause them to lose a job or be away from their family.

“And so we’re really trying to make decisions based on what risk a person represents, not their ability to pay a monetary bond,” Williams said. “It’s been disproportionate, quite frankly, if you’re a poor person, you’re less likely to get out of prison.”

The first step of the new pretrial program is a risk assessment. Geri Fox is DOC’s new pretrial director. She said the risk analysis will be based on a series of objective questions.

“How many felony arrests has this person had in the last five years?” Fox gave an example. “How many misdemeanor arrests has the person had in the past three years?”

Who conducts the risk assessment and monitors the defendant if they are not behind bars? That is going to depend on the location. Williams said DOC will hire about 60 pretrial service officers for bigger cities in Alaska. But in small towns like Haines, he sees that role falling to local police departments.

That’s where the community jails contracts come in. DOC pays 15 communities, from Haines to Kotzebue to Cordova, to operate rural jails. Williams wants to add on to the contracts, so that police departments participate in monitoring and supervision of defendants outside the jail cell.

“With the increased monies that DOC is giving us and the increased responsibility, I think at the end of the day we’re better serving our community,” Haines police chief Heath Scott said. “We’re in touch with people we need to be in touch with keep them on the straight and narrow, so to speak.”

The Haines department consists of a chief, soon to be four officers, and five dispatchers. The dispatchers also act as corrections officers, operating the jail. Scott said the new pre-trial responsibilities may require either another part-time dispatcher or more overtime hours. But he thinks the $30,000 DOC is adding to the contract will cover that work.

“We don’t know exactly what it looks like right now,” Scott said. “We’ve done no supervision, we’ve done no monitoring right now. But we don’t think it’s going to be a heavy lift.”

Scott hopes the revised contract means DOC funding is more secure in the future. Two years ago, the state chopped community jails money. It meant a $170,000 hit to the Haines Borough. The police department is still heavily reliant on the community jails funding.

And Williams hopes the roll-out of the $10 million statewide pretrial program will make Alaska’s justice system more equitable.

“It just makes sense, you don’t want low-risk people who’ve had a bad day in prison,” Williams said. “Have them be responsible and pay a consequence otherwise. But if you’re a risky person and you’ve been able to pay your way out of prison, those days are done.”

So, as the legislature prepares to debate changes to SB 91, Williams and his department are preparing the pre-trial program. That includes meeting with smaller communities like Haines, to see if they’re willing to partner in this new focus on prevention.