To Idaho prosecutors, there’s no mystery why the state’s prisons are overflowing: Minor drug cases are skyrocketing, and they’re all felonies.
“It’s loading up our jails; it’s jamming the courts,” said Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas, who said methamphetamine convictions are soaring.
Idaho considers possession of any amount - even residue - of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine or LSD a felony. That means prison time.
Drug offenders, repeat drunken drivers and those who repeatedly drive without a license are major factors pushing up Idaho’s prison population, according to the Idaho Department of Corrections.
Idaho ranks third in the nation in increases in the inmate population from 1994 to 1995, with an 18 percent rise. The inmate population jumped another 8 percent in the first half of this year. Currently, 31 percent of Idaho prison inmates are incarcerated for drugs, drunken driving or driving without privileges.
If current trends hold, Idaho will need to double its prison space in six years at a cost of $250 million.
But on Monday, Gov. Phil Batt’s spokeswoman, Amy Kleiner, said the state is unlikely to be able to afford expensive prison construction in the coming year.
“The state is in somewhat of a quandary because people do not want to pay higher taxes for more prison space,” she said. “But the attitude of the public seems to be that people should serve their whole sentence and the penalties should be harsh.”
Idaho has strong sentencing laws, Kleiner said, and keeps inmates in prison longer than other states.
Rather than change that, Batt will look for more cost-effective ways to house prisoners, Kleiner said. The state is studying private prisons and already has 155 inmates housed in a private lockup in Minnesota. But for first-time drug offenders, there may be other options. Idaho is looking into the idea of a “drug court” that could handle minor offenders, with the possibility that they could avoid prison and even have their records wiped clean if they complete treatment, pay restitution or meet other requirements.
“That is one thing he (Batt) is interested in as opposed to just incarceration,” Kleiner said.
Several Washington counties, including Spokane, already have drug court programs.
Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower also is looking into the drug court idea. Bower said Monday he hopes it can keep people out of prison, help them with addictions and prevent the criminal justice system from being “swept away by a flood of minor drug cases.”
Douglas said his office filed 93 felony methamphetamine charges in 1994, and that the number jumped to 240 in 1995. “It’s just a stunning explosion,” he said.
He also noted an increase in felony driving-without-privileges offenses. A third such offense is a felony and brings prison time. At the same time, Idaho has added more and more reasons a license can be suspended, from failure to pay child support to dropping out of high school.
“This is creating another category of felons, that is those who continue to drive, alcohol aside,” Douglas said.
Kootenai County also has seen an increase in felony drunken driving cases. A 1994 law strengthened penalties, making a second DUI conviction in five years a felony if the blood-alcohol level exceeds .20.
The law also made it easier to combine related charges to help a case reach the felony level.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: graphic: More inmates