The Idaho House has overwhelmingly approved and sent to the Senate legislation that would allow the state for the first time to contract for private prisons.
The bill approved 69-1 by the House on Tuesday would authorize the Board of Correction to solicit bids from private companies to build facilities to hold Idaho prisoners.
Sponsoring Rep. Celia Gould, R-Buhl, expects the effort will produce a 1,200-bed prison that will cost $20 million to $25 million a year to operate.
Lawmakers have been trying to curb the cost of prisons, which is squeezing the funds available for other purposes like education. The budget proposed for next year gives the largest funding increases to the Department of Correction and the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Correction is to get an increase of 13.5 percent from general tax revenue. The public school appropriation will increase less than 4 percent.
“Our situation is that our institutions are maxed out,” Gould said. It would cost $60 million to $70 million to build a new prison to meet the growth, she said, and the state doesn’t have it.
There has been talk of releasing nonviolent offenders to ease overcrowding. “That’s not an option my constituents are asking for, in fact just the opposite,” Gould said. “I just can’t see that that is something we will be looking at.”
Rep. Ken Robison, D-Boise, said the state should be looking at sentencing options rather than cramming more people into prisons.
The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Bob Geddes, R-Preston, said there are enough controls in place.
“There’s competition out there,” he said. “There are at least 17 providers for this service. We’re going to pay the bill one way or another.”