Last Tuesday, a prisoner walked out of the Anchorage jail a free man. Unremarkable, except it was five months after his sentence ended.
By the Department of Corrections’ own admission, the man — who the department would not name — spent nearly an extra six months incarcerated because of a clerical error in the computation of his complicated sentence.
His case is an extreme example of a widespread and insidious problem in Alaska’s criminal justice system.
Over the past five years, DOC has kept — or would have kept if the errors hadn’t been discovered by state investigators — more than 100 inmates in jail for days, weeks and even months after their sentences expired because of clerical errors, an analysis of data from the state ombudsman’s office shows.
That number, attorneys and investigators agree, is probably a major under count. It represents only inmates who’ve completed a lengthy formal process with the Alaska Office of the Ombudsman.
For every prisoner who complains, there are more who just sit a few extra days in jail, said Bethel attorney Jim Valcarce. He consistently fields two to three calls per month from people, almost all in rural Alaska jails, who say they’ve been detained for longer than their sentence.
“I’ve seen it a few days and I’ve seen it as long as a month,” he said.
Those people are missing out on work, family life, subsistence activities, holidays, he says. They are missing out on their lives.
“I can’t think of anything worse, more unfair, than someone who is sitting in jail for no reason. That’s a miscarriage of justice.”
Such errors break one of the foundational contracts of the justice system: That people should go free once they’ve served their time. At the same time, sentence miscalculations cost the already cash-strapped state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The prisoner released Tuesday alone would have cost the state at least $23,000 in unnecessary incarceration.