Collision Course Hard To Shift Tough-On-Crime Stance Old Ways Imprison Potential Reforms

SUNDAY, NOV. 23, 1997

Part Five

It would take years for Idaho to pull itself out of the money hole that lawmakers dug with a decade of tough-on-crime laws.

But a panel discussion among eight people with a stake in the issue showed little resolve to address the impact of those laws.

This despite a recent statewide poll that shows Idahoans oppose prison spending at the expense of education. The poll and panel are part of a special report by a group of Idaho newspapers and television stations, including The Spokesman-Review.

“It is a collision course - there’s no doubt about it,” Sen. Cecil Ingram, R-Boise, said during the panel discussion last week.

But state Rep. Celia Gould, R-Buhl, who is chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, sees no substantive changes ahead in the laws that imprison offenders in Idaho.

Her committee will look at a set of proposals from Gov. Phil Batt that supporters say could cut the state’s inmate population. “In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that those people are actually there on those minor offenses,” she said.

Meantime, the man responsible for taking care of the state’s 4,000 prisoners said he supports alternative programs but needs more money for prisons, too, just to handle the people already in the system.

State prisons hold 800 more inmates than they were designed to, 650 inmates are out of state and another 250 are housed in county jails, said James Spalding, director the state Department of Correction.

“So there’s not a lot we can do about that other than catch up,” Spalding said.

Nearly a fourth of the state’s 4,000 inmates are serving time for four nonviolent crimes - drug possession, driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license and bad checks.

These crimes help explain why the share of state spending that goes to prisons has nearly tripled in the past 23 years while the share for higher education has been cut almost in half.

Batt has taken steps to slow the growth of prisons, asking the Legislature in January to consider reducing the penalties for writing bad checks under $50 and other nonviolent offenses. But Gould said it’s not fair to frame the debate as prisons vs. higher education.

“The way we look at it when we deal with the budgeting process is as a piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Greg Brown, a Treasure Valley building contractor who took part in a citizens panel earlier this month, said he doesn’t see one set of priorities pitted against another.

“I don’t see it so much as an issue of funding priorities…I see it more as what do we expect as a community,” he said.

Shane Ostermeier, student president of Idaho State University, said the connection is clear.

“If we’re focusing on building prisons, then we’re not focusing on building education facilities,” he said.

Ingram said legislators were acting as Idahoans wanted them to in passing tougher laws.

State leaders including Gould, House Speaker Mike Simpson and Attorney General Al Lance insist that still is what Idahoans want.

But the poll showed 73 percent disagree with decisions that have boosted corrections at the expense of higher education.

Idaho may be seeing a backlash, Ingram said: “It’s time to rethink.”

Mary Stohr, a Boise State criminology professor who took part in the panel discussion, suggests the state spend more on alternative programs, training and drug treatment to save money. That can reduce the likelihood an offender will re-offend, she said.

Stohr warned, though, that no single solution will cut spending.

The poll showed that most Idahoans want to spend more money on programs such as job training, mental health programs, drug treatment and parole monitoring.

Spalding of the Correction Department said he doesn’t oppose such programs but also must deal with the 30 to 40 new offenders who are sentenced to prison monthly.

Besides, Spalding said, the typical inmate serving time for drunken driving has a criminal history and has undergone some kind of treatment. The problem can’t be fixed in the 18 months the inmate might serve in prison, he said.

Roy Mosman, one of eight members of the Idaho Board of Education, told Spalding he is defending the status quo. Idaho needs to look seriously at alternatives, he said.

“We’re dead in the water in terms of how much money we have,” he said. “We’re in deep trouble in terms of money for education.”

Mosman acknowledged that college in Idaho is a bargain, with tuition lower than in neighboring states. The state could choose to raise tuition so it has more to spend on its higher education system, he added.

But all panel members objected to raising taxes for corrections or higher education, even though the poll showed some support if taxes would improve educational opportunities.

Brown, who has college-age children, said he wants to see affordable higher education but not by raising taxes.

“I think we have to look closely at where the dollars are going,” he said.

Ingram agreed. “The public will not stand for a tax increase.”

Gould said the public would accept higher taxes if corrections and higher education were using the money as efficiently as possible.

But the problem is bigger than streamlining expenses, in the view of Boise defense attorney David Nevin. He sees a need for significant changes in the system.

“The fact is our prison population is growing by leaps and bounds,” Nevin said. “Plainly, some people must be incarcerated because they are dangerous.” But many inmates aren’t there for public safety reasons, he said: “They don’t threaten us.”

Most people in prison, even those locked up for the four growing non-violent crimes, deserve to be there, Gould said. “The folks I’ve seen are not the type of folks you want to invite for Sunday dinner - they’re hardened criminals,” she said.

She and ISU student Ostermeier agreed on one point: Coming up with the money to keep offenders in prison is a balancing act that must reflect the wishes of society.

But Ostermeier said the public wants it all - criminals in prison and more money for higher education. The trouble is they don’t want higher taxes or tuition.

“We want both things,” Gould said. “That’s what this whole thing is about, it is a balancing act.”


These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. HOW PROJECT WAS DONE Idaho newspapers and television stations first met last spring in Boise to discuss joining forces to explore the state’s growing corrections budget. The result of that effort is “Collision Course,” an unprecedented statewide civic journalism project by four newspapers and two television stations. The project was supported by a grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. To measure Idahoans’ views on state spending priorities, participants polled more than 800 people in all corners of Idaho. To explore the reasoning behind these views, the newspapers sponsored citizen discussion groups in six communities - Twin Falls, Idaho Falls, Boise, Nampa, Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene. The project included the most extensive profile ever developed of Idaho’s prison population, using 15 databases covering 12 years of inmate records. Reporters and photographers visited prisons, college campuses and the homes of Idaho parolees. More than 100 people were interviewed.

2. THE SERIES Last Sunday: Idahoans disagree with two decades of state policy that has cut the share of state money going to higher education while boosting prison spending. Monday: Nonviolent crimes, especially drug possession and driving offenses, account for most of Idaho’s skyrocketing prison population. Tuesday: Colleges and universities bear the brunt when money is siphoned away for prisons. Wednesday: A look at alternative means of punishment and rehabilitation, and at treatment and training for those on the inside. Today: Where Idaho goes from here - a panel discussion among legislators, corrections officials, students, taxpayers and others.

Televised discussion Today at 9 p.m., a special “Collision Course” discussion will be presented on Idaho Public Television.

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