September 27, 1997 in City

Make Punishment Suit The Crime

By The Spokesman-Review

It’s hard to say who was the first person to mutter, “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” But there’s a strong chance he was an Idahoan. Idaho has an old-fashion intolerance toward crime.

Writing a string of bad checks can land you in prison in the Gem State. Ditto for repeatedly driving without a license. And, once you’re sent to the house of correction, there’s no time off for good behavior. You’re going to be warehoused by the state until you serve a minimum amount of time set by a judge.

Most Idahoans support the Legislature’s hard line on crime. But it has a down side. The prison population has exploded. Millions of dollars that could be spent on education are wasted on prisons. Idaho taxpayers spend more than $50 per man, woman and child for prisons.

Even a hard-liner on crime like Gov. Phil Batt views that as waste. As a result, Batt unveiled some common-sense reforms to Idaho’s criminal system this summer. His plan could save the state $5 million to $10 million per year while keeping dangerous felons locked up. These proposals deserve the full attention of the 1998 Legislature.

In her series, “The Price of Punishment,” Betsy Russell of The Spokesman-Review documented how Idaho’s precious prison space is clogged with petty criminals.

During the past year, 78 of the people sent to prison in Idaho were nonviolent offenders. In fact, four crimes that aren’t even felonies in most states account for nearly a quarter of Idaho’s prison population: simple drug possession, drunken driving, driving without a license and writing bad checks.

Batt, as a self-appointed “committee of one,” wants to change two crimes from felonies to misdemeanors - driving without privileges and writing bad checks of less than $50. There now are 124 in Idaho’s prisons on those two charges.

The governor talked to judges, prison officials and others before making his recommendations. He also proposed to allow the Parole Commission more discretion to release inmates, hire more probation and parole officers, and increase dollar amounts in state criminal laws to reflect inflation.

Batt, however, decided against a suggestion to restore “good time” for the bad guys. He felt that the judges’ sentences shouldn’t be altered and the incentive for inmates to behave in prison should come from the hope of parole after they’ve served their minimum term.

And if Idaho’s criminals disagree with him on that point? Maybe they should commit their crimes somewhere else.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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