FAIRBANKS, Alaska — State and local officials are hopeful that two recently passed laws and additional funding will help Alaska find solutions to problems with substance abuse and jail overcrowding.
A group of organizations, including Recover Alaska, the Fairbanks Hospital Foundation and the Downtown Association, hosted a discussion on the issues Tuesday. The meeting focused on the criminal justice reform and Medicaid reform bills approved by the Legislature this year, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported (http://bit.ly/2cMftEs).
Department of Corrections Commissioner Dean Williams said the crime legislation, which aims to reduce the amount of low-level offenders behind bars, will help alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prisons.
“It’s all about getting the right people in jail and keeping the wrong people out,” he said.
Williams also discussed the shuttering of the Palmer Correctional Center, which he said has allowed him to relocate staff to where they are most needed.
The state corrections department announced a plan to close the Palmer facility earlier this summer that called for the transfer of nearly 500 prisoners and many of the 105 staff members to other prisons throughout southcentral Alaska.
In addition to changes within Alaska’s criminal justice system, officials at the meeting also discussed ways Medicaid expansion will help provide low-income residents with services for substance abuse treatment.
Diane Casto, a state behavioral health policy adviser, said the state will soon provide grants to communities to fund sobering centers, detox centers and residential treatment. Legislators approved $6 million in the state budget for the grants.
The Fairbanks community has been trying to secure funding for a sobering center to provide inebriated residents a place to sober up without using more expensive services such as hospitals or jails.
An inmate at the Fairbanks Correctional Center, who was being treated for alcohol withdrawal, died at the facility earlier this month. Joel Titus, 40, suffered a seizure and was found unresponsive during his second day at the jail.
Williams said at Tuesday’s meeting that he believed there was room for improvement in the medical treatment Titus received during his jail stay.
“The normal for the department has not been normal, and what has happened in some of the deaths — to be quite frank, I’ve said clearly — is not normal,” Williams. “If we’re going to make changes, we have to stop spending money in certain ways and redeploy it elsewhere.”
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com