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Mon., May 13, 2013, 1:24 p.m.

Judges fear IDOC using probation to manage budget

Idaho judges are raising concerns that the state Department of Correction is pressing to inappropriately release some offenders on probation to ease a swelling prison population, the Idaho Statesman newspaper reported Sunday in a front-page article by reporter Dan Popkey. At issue is the state's "rider" program, in which judges can retain jurisdiction over offenders while they undergo an intensive program for 90 to 180 days, after which the judge can decide whether to release them on probation, or release jurisdiction and send them to prison for their full sentences, based on how they fare in the program. Fourth District Judge Mike Wetherell is raising the alarm, as is 4th District Judge Cheri Copsey. In a letter to the heads of the House and Senate judiciary committees and IDOC chief Brent Reinke, Wetherell wrote, "I believe the problem could in the future, if it has not already, create serious public sfety concerns."

Wetherell noted a case in which an IDOC employee recommended probation for a sex offender, telling the court, "We're out of space in the prison and they want us to be very judicious in who we recommend," Popkey reported. Two weeks after Wetherell sent that offender back to prison, Copsey rejected a probation recommendation from another offender and attached the 82-page transcript of Wetherell's earlier sentencing hearing. Wetherell said in the hearing that he objected to "a system in which pressure is placed upon employees," and said, "It is their obligation to say we would like to recommend incarceration in this case, but budgetary constraints prohibit us from doing so. That's called honesty."

You can read Popkey's full report here; click below for a shorter version of the story via the Associated Press. IDOC denies that it's pressuring employees to release offenders on probation who shouldn't be released, and said the employees must have misunderstood. In a sidebar, Popkey reports that another Idaho judge is raising concerns that IDOC's medical services contractor is skimping on prescription medications for inmates in the rider program, causing them psychological and medical problems that then lead to them failing the rider and being sent to prison for their full terms.

Judges fear IDOC using probation to manage budget


BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Two Idaho state judges have raised concerns the Department of Correction is inappropriately recommending probation for some convicted criminals, rather than prison time, to manage its budget for keeping people behind bars.

The Idaho Statesman (http://tinyurl.com/cf583mu) reports 4th District judges Mike Wetherell and Cheri Copsey recently rejected probation recommendations by the state prison agency, one for a sex offender and another for a man convicted of assault.

IDOC's "recommendations for probation ... lack credibility," Copsey said.

During one case, prison employee Naomi Laurino told Wetherell the prison system was out of space and her superiors wanted her to be "very judicious" when recommending prisoners who should be incarcerated, rather than put on probation.

Wetherell said he was outraged that Laurino, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation specialist, during an April 3 hearing recommended probation for convicted sex offender Steven C. Shepherd, 38, even though her report described him as agitated, argumentative, defensive and unwilling to take responsibility for his crime against a 16-year-old girl.

"It is their obligation to say we would like to recommend incarceration in this case, but budgetary constraints prohibit us from doing so," he wrote in a letter to, among others, Idaho Senate Judiciary and Rules Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. "That's called honesty. If these reports begin to be perceived as little more than a way to control the prison population, then the entire system will suffer."

Two weeks after Wetherell sent Shepherd back to prison, Copsey rejected a probation recommendation for another man convicted of aggravated assault and unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon.

Copsey cited Wetherell's case, calling it revelatory about the prison system's attempt to manage its budget through ill-advised probation recommendations.

Prison officials denied they were putting employees under pressure to recommend probation when a prison term would be more appropriate.

Lynn Guyer, warden of the North Idaho Correction Institution where Shepherd had completed a program designed to help convicted sex offenders avoid prison time, said he's "not exactly sure why" Laurino and other employees testified they were under pressure to recommend probation over time behind bars.

But he said it's not coming from him.

"There is no pressure to (recommend) probation over relinquishment" back to prison, Guyer said.

Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke also said he's not pushing his employees to recommend probation, if it's not appropriate.

"I'd be lying to you to tell you that budget doesn't affect everything we do," he said. "But it doesn't affect the decision of those individual staff members. We try to protect them from that as much as we can. But they all know where we are as far as our facilities — we want to maximize the beds."

Reinke plans to meet with Laurino and others next week to learn more about their concerns.

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Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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