A shooting victim's quest to reform Alaska's criminal justice system

Alaska Pretrial Services offers nonviolent offenders a second chance through sobriety

By Zakiya McCummings

Published December 9, 2017 3:00PM (EST)


This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

ya-embed-logoIn 2010, Dennis Johnson's life was changed in a flash of gunfire. Since then, he's been using what he learned from his tragedy to rethink the Alaska criminal system. Johnson launched Alaska Pretrial Services (APS), a non-profit providing pretrial jail services to defendants out on bail, in the wake of the shooting death of his nephew, Edwing Matos.

The gunman, Terrance Gray, was a fugitive from the East Coast who had fled to Alaska. While hiding out in Anchorage, Gray was arrested again, this time for car theft, and released on bail to a third-party custodian.

“He’d taken off from the third-party custodian at about 6 a.m. that morning, and at 6:17 that night he shot my nephew twice — and me three times,” Johnson said. “In just over 12 hours, the third party never made a phone call [to the Department of Corrections].”

According to Johnson, Alaska’s bail system focused solely on economics and disproportionally affected low-income offenders. As a result, many non-violent offenders ended up awaiting trial in jail. These offenders often suffered from substance and alcohol abuse, Johnson said. As a result, APS developed a pilot program aimed getting offenders back to work, sober and stable before they went to court. At the time, the cost of housing one pretrial inmate was $154.50 a day.

“I said I can do it better, I can do it more effectively and I’ll do it for $18 a day.”

The program ran for approximately one fiscal year on a $250,000 budget. Johnson said it saved the state $1.3 million in hard-bed expenses, but the program was not renewed the following year.

“I had to remand all of those guys on June 30 and put them back in jail. Housing they’d gotten? Went away. Jobs that they’d earned? All were fired,” Johnson explained. “Do you know how much it costs the state of Alaska to house those offenders for 47 days? $250,000.”

Although the state decided not to refund the indigent pilot program, APS soldiered on, launching the Alaska 24/7 Sobriety Program in June 2014 with sponsorship from the Department of Health and Social Services’s Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP). 24/7 offers non-violent offenders with drug and alcohol related charges the opportunity to work with a third-party custodian as long as they remain sober.

From June 30, 2014 to October 31, 2017, APS administered 95,145 portable breath alcohol tests and 70,277 drug and narcotic tests; only 455 tested positive. It is one of Johnson’s proudest achievements.

“I think that because we’ve treated people with respect and kindness, and as a human, these guys and gals actually feel guilty if they let us down,” Johnson said.

24/7 was introduced to the Alaska Court System via Senate Bill 64, a bill that expanded drug and alcohol programs across the state. The bill also created the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency created to suggest criminal justice reform based on prior research for Alaska’s court system, and paved the way for Senate Bill 91.

SB91 was a massive overhaul of the criminal justice system, one that started as a 21-page legislation and was signed in to law with 123 pages. It is a vast and complicated piece of legislation that’s been debated across the state and dissected by Anchorage Daily News.

One of the bills reforms established a new government agency tasked with handling pretrial offenders; it has also been named Alaska Pretrial Services. Although he was encouraged to apply for the director’s position, Johnson ultimately decided not to become involved.

“You can’t do at a government level what we do here,” Johnson said. “It’s smaller class sizes, it’s one-on-one. It’s personal.”

With a new state agency tasked with handling pretrial offenders, private electronic monitoring companies in Alaska have seen a slow decline. When SB91 went in to effect there were 13 private electronic monitoring companies operating in Alaska. Now, APS is one of seven.

“They’ve eliminated, by proxy, six of their thirteen competitors in the state,” Johnson said.

With the full rollout of the state’s pretrial services set to begin in January 2018, there’s less certainty for APS and other companies like it. For now, Johnson said, as long as the lights are on, APS’s doors will be open.

Zakiya McCummings

Zakiya McCummings is a senior journalism student at the University of Alaska Anchorage from Eagle River, Alaska. Having had a special interest in culture journalism, she joined the Young Americans fellowship in the hopes of showcasing the vast cultural landscape of Alaska. Follow her on Instagram (@realzakiya) and Twitter (@realzakiya). Visit her website for more of her work: zakiyamcc.com.

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