Ten years of getting tough on crime have left Idaho with some difficult decisions.
Money that could go to the state’s traditional priority, education, is being swallowed by the overflowing prison system.
Alarmed state officials have commissioned studies, set up task forces. But few changes have been made, in part because voters reward politicians who are tough on crime. Many political leaders say they don’t want Idaho to change course, regardless of costs.
A frustrated Gov. Phil Batt this summer appointed himself a “committee of one” and came up with a plan for slowing the flow of inmates into Idaho’s prisons.
Now the state is poised for a debate about what works, what matters and what’s politically palatable.
Batt, a successful onion farmer and longtime Idaho politician, admits his proposals are modest. But he’s happily upping his initial estimate that the changes would save the state $5 million to $10 million a year and reduce the inmate load by 200 to 300 prisoners.
“I think that’s on the low side,” he said. “I think we’re gonna do some good.”
Changing two crimes from felonies to misdemeanors: driving without a valid license and writing bad checks for less than $50.
Allowing the Commission for Pardons and Parole more flexibility to release prisoners who don’t have homes and jobs waiting, and to decide how much more time should be served when a parolee violates parole conditions. The latter could prevent the sentences of some parole violators from stretching far past their original release dates, as they do now.
Changing the successful “boot camp” program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution from six to four months. That could allow about 350 more people to go through the program each year. A favorite of judges, the program allows offenders to earn probation if they pass, or go to prison for their full sentence if they fail.
Raising the thresholds for felonies to reflect inflation. Idaho’s grand theft threshold, for example, is $300 - and that’s only because the Legislature doubled it two years ago from $150. Felony grand theft can bring up to 14 years in prison, while misdemeanor thefts - those below the dollar threshold - can bring up to a year in jail.
Hiring more probation and parole officers, to give judges and parole commissioners confidence that if they release an offender, someone will keep tabs on him.
The governor also recommended studying other options, such as:
Experimenting with a “drug court” program to divert drug offenders into treatment rather than prison.
Using more work centers or halfway houses for nondangerous criminals, and increasing the use of home arrest and electronic monitoring.
Making sure conditions of parole or probation are reasonable, so an offender can comply and stay out of prison. High monthly payments on fines for low-wage workers are unreasonable, he said.
Changing Idaho’s system won’t be easy.
“You’ve pretty much got a mess,” said Michael Jones, a senior researcher with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Jones, who studied Idaho’s prisons and prepared a report for Gov. Batt, said states that have responded most effectively to prison crowding have looked at their entire system of crimes and punishments, evaluating their budgets and setting priorities.
Idaho has “Band-Aids everywhere,” Jones said.
He suggested Idaho set up a commission to deal with all criminal sentencing and set guidelines, similar to Washington’s system.
He pointed to Kansas as a conservative, tough-sentencing state that established a commission to make sure the state will “punish the bad guys” without driving up prison costs.
“They’ve made the decision that there’s not enough dollars to incarcerate everyone who commits a crime, and therefore they’re focusing on a certain element of chronic, serious and violent offenders.”
Costs can’t be ignored, Jones said. “There’s only a limited amount of taxpayer dollars, and they need to be wisely spent, regardless of what the arena is.”
Idaho legislators’ unease with talking about costs when passing tough crime laws concerns Robert Marsh, chairman of the criminal justice department at Boise State University.
Some states, such as Pennsylvania, require detailed analyses of new crime legislation, tallying prison costs the legislation would generate.
Idaho would benefit from that kind of analysis, Marsh said. “I’ve been suggesting it to them for seven or eight years. I haven’t gotten anywhere yet.”
Idaho also lacks sentencing alternatives used by many states.
Idaho has probation but few options between it and prison. The fact that Idaho judges make such heavy use of the state’s boot camp prison program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution at Cottonwood shows a need for alternatives below the boot camp level, Jones said.
That could mean house arrest or electronic monitoring, treatment programs, or various types of residential programs.
Longtime Coeur d’Alene Judge James Judd said Idaho judges often require offenders to seek treatment at their own expense. But many people can’t afford it.
Judges would like to have centers in their communities where offenders could get treatment and counseling, be locked up at night, and leave during the day to work, Judd said. The criminals could pay for part of the cost with the income they earn by working.
“We’d love that kind of thing,” he said. “We just don’t have it available.”
Idaho has four community work centers now, and is completing a fifth in Boise. It also has a work camp at St. Anthony and a work program at the state prison at Orofino.
There are none in North Idaho. The work centers are used mainly for inmates nearing release, to help them make the transition back to freedom.
Adding more work centers wouldn’t take legislative action, just money. The state is moving that way now, because the centers are so much cheaper to operate than prisons - about $34 per inmate per day, compared with $47 in prison.
Idaho also is finalizing plans for a huge private prison in Boise to hold 1,250 inmates. It likely will be full when it opens in 1999, and will cost the state about $102 million over the next three years.
Gov. Batt rejected a number of proposals offered by consultants and experts to reduce Idaho’s prison population, saying they just weren’t appropriate. Changing drunken driving from a felony to a misdemeanor, for example, would be a bad idea because drunken drivers cause more harm in Idaho than all other crime combined, Batt said.
Batt also rejected: reinstating time off for good behavior in prison; changing possession of small amounts of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor; releasing nonviolent offenders when they have served minimum sentences; and repealing mandatory minimum sentence laws, giving that decision back to judges.
Batt says the reforms he’s outlined would save money and make sure the criminal justice system is sensible and effective.
Jones said Batt’s proposals “seem to be rational, sane things.” But with Idaho growing, “You’re going to outgrow these sort of narrow fixes.
“It’s not that crime is out of control in Idaho, because it is not,” Jones said. “It’s just for whatever reason, Idaho has decided to lock up a lot of people, and that’s a policy choice that they’ve made.”