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Prison Costs Getting Out Of Hand, Official Says Controller Urges State To Lock Up Fewer Nonviolent Offenders

Idaho’s increasing tendency to lock nonviolent offenders in prison is “spiraling out of control,” according to state Controller J.D. Williams.

“As a state, Idaho is rapidly approaching the point where we will have to decide between building more prisons or more schools,” Williams wrote in a new report released Monday. “Since the great majority of Idahoans want better schools, it is time to use some Idaho common sense and reduce the growth in our correction budget.”

Williams based his statements on a two-month research project by his office that looked at sentencing trends and prison costs.

“I’m a former prosecutor; I have put people in prison,” the Democrat said. “So I know the importance of protecting society.”

But he said costs are getting out of hand.

“Yes, it’s important we incarcerate violent criminals, dangerous criminals. But do we need to put hundreds of individuals in for writing bad checks or for driving violations?”

Williams’ report looked at trends over the past 10 years. Among its findings:

The average sentence decreased 25 percent between 1987 and 1996, but the average length of stay in prison increased 108 percent. In 1987, inmates were serving, on average, 35 percent of their sentences. In 1996, the figure was 91.9 percent.

That means the average stay in prison had risen from 36 months to 75 months.

As of Jan. 31, all state prisons were above design capacity and were at 61 percent to 101 percent of “maximum capacity.” That figure counts all the beds that can be squeezed in through double-bunking and other measures.

Fifty-two percent of the prison population growth between December 1993 and December 1996 was due to probation and parole violations.

The number of people imprisoned whose primary offense was driving without a license increased from only one in 1987 to 100 in 1996. The number in prison for drunken driving went from 24 to 335 in the same time.

The number of Idaho taxpayers per prison inmate dropped from 241.68 in 1989 to 171.16 in 1997.

Huge increases in the percentage of the state budget devoted to prisons - from 2.6 percent in 1988 to 4.8 percent in 1990 to 7.3 percent in the governor’s recommended budget for fiscal 1999 - correspond closely with increases in the prison population.

The least dangerous inmates - those classified as minimum- and community-custody - rose from 29.1 percent of the prison population in 1987 to 52.2 percent in 1996.

The report also cited Boise State University’s annual Idaho Public Policy survey which found that 61.9 percent of Idahoans want to remove nonviolent offenders from prison and 68.2 percent want increased public education spending.

Williams said he put together his report for the information of legislators and the public.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FULL REPORT By the end of the week, the full report will be posted on the state controller’s Web site at

This sidebar appeared with the story: FULL REPORT By the end of the week, the full report will be posted on the state controller’s Web site at