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Collision Course Prison Industry Idaho Prisons Filling For Crimes That Aren’t Felonies In Other States

Mon., Nov. 17, 1997, midnight

Part Two

It’s not murderers, thieves or drug dealers who are pushing Idaho’s prison system beyond capacity. It’s people whose crimes are using drugs, driving drunk, driving without a license or writing bad checks.

More than $130 million will be spent in the next two years on new prison cells, much of it to make room for people who committed these four nonviolent crimes.

They aren’t felonies in most states, but account for 35 percent of people sent to Idaho prisons last year. That’s up from just 6 percent 10 years ago, according to an analysis of state prison records.

Two of the most violent crimes - murder and assault-and-battery - no longer rank among the top five reasons Idaho inmates are behind bars. During the past decade, they have been replaced on this list by simple drug possession and DUI.

“It’s not the fault of corrections,” said Robert Marsh, criminal justice chairman at Boise State University. “They try like crazy to get funding for treatment and other programs. But it’s bricks and mortar that get the attention of the Legislature.”

Idaho leaders including Gov. Phil Batt are looking at routing offenders away from prison. The reason is cost. Prisons are getting a bigger share of state money while the share for higher education shrinks.

The increase in inmates traces back to a decade of tough-on-crime policies set by the Idaho Legislature. It is out of proportion to the state’s population growth and crime rate.

“I don’t know if the system is that effective right now,” said Brian Pike, a Twin Falls police officer who took part in a panel discussion on the topic. “How many people are we going to incarcerate?”

Batt will propose changes to the Legislature that are welcomed by reform advocates.

“We have to start talking about what we’re going to do rather than funding this monster we’ve created,” said Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, education committee chairman.

The governor would drop two crimes from felony to misdemeanor - writing bad checks under $50 and driving without a valid license. He also would cycle prisoners faster through the state’s inmate “boot camp” in Cottonwood, give the Parole Commission more discretion to release inmates and hire more probation and parole officers.

The changes could cut inmate population by 300 and save $10 million a year.

“I take pride in the fact I have actively tried to turn the tide. I think I’m having some effect,” Batt said.

But in the past 10 years, only one inmate has been imprisoned for bad checks under $50. The invalid license crime accounts for 97 inmates.

State leaders have been reluctant to address the stiff sentences they set for other nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession and DUI. These two offenses account for 709 inmates and now rank No. 4 and No. 5 on the list.

“I think we’re on the right track,” said state Rep. Celia Gould, R-Buhl, chairwoman of the House judiciary committee. “I’ve been out to the institutions a number of times, and quite frankly I can’t say I’ve seen anyone out there who shouldn’t be out there.”

Nonviolent offenders overall account for a growing proportion of state inmates - 61 percent today compared with 55 percent in 1992.

“This has basically been by the intent of the Legislature - to increase the penalties for nonviolent offenders,” said 4th District Judge Robert Newhouse of Boise.

One of them is Bryan Quinton, 24, a mechanic from Mountain Home nearing the end of a four-year sentence for writing bad checks.

His trouble started, he said, when his checking account balance fell to zero and he kept writing checks anyway. He needed food, he said. But he also bought a pair of $130 stereo speakers with a bad check.

“I know I made a mistake, but I was just a stupid kid,” he said. “I think four years is a lot to pay for it. It’s kind of extreme.”

Keeping Quinton in prison will cost taxpayers about $68,000.

He is one of 55 bad-check writers in Idaho prisons - a group that has grown by 72 percent in the past decade.

But it’s modest compared with increases in other nonviolent crimes: drug possession is up 1,000 percent to 352 inmates; DUI is up 892 percent to 357; driving with an invalid license is up 1,840 percent to 97.

Judges and prosecutors say nonviolent offenders usually land in prison because of prior records.

Judge Newhouse sentenced a drug user to prison last month after two stints at a 180-day work camp failed to turn him around. It was the man’s fourth conviction for possession of methamphetamine.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to the penitentiary,”’ Newhouse said. “He hadn’t cleaned up his act.”

Simply classifying all drug-possession crimes as misdemeanors, punishable by no more than a year in a county jail, might be unwise, said Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower.

“It’s not as simple as it sounds,” he said. “These are not people who got caught one time. These are persistent users who have a real problem.”

Inmate David Shaffer of Boise admits he has a problem. He’s behind bars on his seventh drunken-driving charge. He got his life together after the sixth charge, he said, but then a divorce started him drinking again.

“I accept the fact I went to prison,” he said. “What I did was wrong.”

Still, Bower and Newhouse agree that a spiraling corrections budget means it’s time to re-examine some sentences. Bower wants to look again at prison time for driving on a suspended license.

“I would prefer to have those 97 beds open for people convicted of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, larceny, burglary - crimes I see as a greater threat to the public,” Bower said. “They’re the scarcest resource we have.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Crime and punishment

MEMO: Betsy Z. Russell is a staff writer with The Idaho Spokesman-Review. Steve Bard is a staff writer with The Idaho Statesman.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell The Spokesman-Review and Steve Bard The Idaho Statesman Ken Miller and Bill Roberts of the Statesman contributed to this report.

Betsy Z. Russell is a staff writer with The Idaho Spokesman-Review. Steve Bard is a staff writer with The Idaho Statesman.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell The Spokesman-Review and Steve Bard The Idaho Statesman Ken Miller and Bill Roberts of the Statesman contributed to this report.


 
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