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How the justice reinvestment project treated riders, sentencing laws…

After hearing several questions about whether Idaho’s “rider” program, which incarcerates offenders in a special treatment program for a short time, then releases them on probation if they succeed or sends them to prison for their full terms if they fail, skews state’s incarceration rate as presented in the justice reinvestment analysis by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center and the Pew Trusts, I quizzed Mark Pelka, the Justice Center’s director. His answer: Riders were only counted as incarcerated when they were actually behind bars, not when they were out on probation. The project’s figures showed that in Idaho, non-violent offenders spend twice as long behind bars as they do in the rest of the nation.

I also asked about sentencing reform, and its role in this project. The answer: The project didn’t even study Idaho’s sentencing laws, as far as the initial sentence that’s issued by a judge. “We have had calls from judges and many others to look more at sentencing,” Pelka said, but, “We did not shine a flashlight on that.” That was in part because Idaho’s sentencing laws don’t differentiate much within categories of offenses, leaving discretion to judges and making Idaho’s sentencing system more difficult to analyze. “Eighty-four percent of sentences are to probation or rider,” Pelka said. Then, 85 percent of riders get released on probation.

 But the project is recommending one major change to how sentencing works in Idaho: It’s calling for non-violent offenders to serve just 100 to 150 percent of their fixed terms behind bars. Currently, drug offenders in Idaho are serving 219 percent of their fixed terms; property crime offenders, 200 percent; and DUI offenders, 231 percent. The idea is to focus more on supervision of those offenders when they’re initially released from prison, to keep them from going back. “The big challenge for Idaho is the return-to-prison rate,” Pelka said. “Fifty-three percent come back in.”

In the project’s recommendations, policy option 2(D) calls for Idaho to “reserve prison space for individuals convicted of violent offenses, by regulating the percent of time above the minimum sentence that people convicted of non-violent offenses may serve.” To accomplish that: “Require that people sentenced to prison for non-violent offenses be paroled at a point between 100 and 150 percent of the fixed term and then be placed under parole supervision.”

That would be a big change. Even without making any changes in Idaho’s overall sentencing laws – under which judges now set both a fixed and an indeterminate term, such as two to six years, with the Parole Commission deciding how much of the indeterminate part the inmate serves – the project is predicting $255 million in savings for Idaho over five years.

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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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