Confronted with proof that their get-tough approach to crime floods prisons, Idaho lawmakers are set to make even more crimes punishable by cell time.
Legislation creating 10 new crimes, six of them felonies, is moving easily through the Legislature.
Another four bills to increase penalties also are winning support.
The laws are in the works at the same time legislators are decrying the costs of prisons and welcoming Gov. Phil Batt’s reforms aimed at slowing prison growth.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a planning capacity in the state, where we would look in a broader way at the impacts of various bills,” said Robert Marsh, chairman of Boise State University’s criminal justice department.
The state budgets only one year at a time, and Marsh said there’s no incentive to look at the long-term, cumulative impact of bills that are passed.
“That’s the real difficulty with much of the legislation. In the short run, the impact is minimal. In the long run, it can be overwhelming.”
Many of the bills creating new crimes or adding extra penalties have passed one house of the Legislature. Half received unanimous votes.
“With these crooks out there, it’s a game of cat-and-mouse, because every time we pass laws they figure out a way to get around ‘em,” said Sen. Denton Darrington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We have to react.”
But Darrington said he thought the governor’s legislation, which he sponsored, would have greater impact than the bills adding crimes and penalties. “On balance, I think we’re starting to slow the growth in the criminal system.”
This year’s action follows a decade of get-tough lawmaking that has flooded the state’s prisons. In the past 10 years, lawmakers have created more than 50 new crimes, two-thirds of them felonies. They’ve enacted mandatory minimum sentences. And they’ve overhauled the state’s sentencing laws and eliminated time off for good behavior.
Now Idaho’s prisons are overflowing, and prisons have become the fastest-growing part of the state budget. Three-quarters of those sent to prison in the past year were nonviolent offenders, and more than a third were convicted of offenses like simple drug possession, drunken driving, driving without a license and writing bad checks.
State Controller J.D. Williams, in a report issued last week, said Idaho’s prison costs are “spiraling out of control,” and called for reforms.
Batt has proposed legislation to remove felony penalties for driving without a license, raise the threshold for grand theft charges from $300 to $1,000, raise the felony level for bad checks to $250 and ease parole procedures.
Batt said Friday he’s pleased with the reception his bills have gotten in the Legislature, and he’s also glad to see lawmakers bring up their own proposals to slow prison growth.
Batt said his reform proposals shouldn’t necessarily preclude consideration of new crimes or penalties. But he said lawmakers should think twice before adding more felonies.
“I hope that they take a good, hard look at it,” he said.
House Speaker Mike Simpson said lawmakers seem supportive of the governor’s proposals. But Simpson said he doesn’t want prison costs to be a factor in decisions on sentencing laws.
“If it lowers the cost, that’s great, that’s an added benefit. But our primary focus ought to be, does the sentence fit the crime?”
The governor’s bill dropping felony penalties for driving without a license will have significant impact, Simpson said, because the crime is so common.
But he said the new crimes lawmakers are targeting this year aren’t likely to result in lots of prisoners. “Not very many people get caught on taking a firearm from a police officer…. Sabotaging of telephone equipment, there’s not a lot of that that goes on.”
Simpson said the new laws will act “more as a deterrent … than anything else.”
Marsh said states across the country pass laws hoping they’ll deter people from committing crimes. But some people aren’t deterred, and they end up in prison.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily wrong in passing new criminal penalties,” Marsh said, “but it would be nice from a planning perspective and a policy perspective to find out what the impact is going to be.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Cracking down The following laws that would create new crimes are moving through the Idaho Legislature this session: SB 1298, makes failure to register as a juvenile sex offender a misdemeanor. SB 1325, makes it a misdemeanor to sell or fit hearing aids without a license. SB 1401, makes malicious destruction of a telephone, telegraph, or cable TV line or instrument a misdemeanor. SB 1402, makes it a felony to maliciously interrupt an emergency telephone call. SB 1516, makes escape from a private prison a felony. HB 456, adds the drug capisprodol to the list of Schedule IV controlled substances. That makes possession without a prescription a misdemeanor, and delivery of the drug a felony. HB 472, makes failure to control a vicious dog a misdemeanor. HB 576, makes it a felony for a doctor to perform certain late-term abortions. HB 631, declares removing or attempting to remove a firearm from a police officer to be a felony. HB 688, makes it a misdemeanor for people to give false information to a police officer about another person’s identity or their own. HB 704, adds the drug GHB to the list of Schedule I controlled substances. That means possession is a felony, as is delivery. These bills to increase penalties for existing crimes also are moving through the Legislature: HB 573, brings amphetamines under the same trafficking laws as methamphetamine. The trafficking laws carry mandatory minimum penalties that range, depending on the amount of drugs involved, from three years in prison and a $10,000 fine to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. HB 723, doubles penalties for domestic assault or battery when a child is present. SB 1332, orders that juveniles 14 or older must be tried as adults for drug trafficking offenses. That subjects them to mandatory minimum penalties that, depending on the amount and type of drug involved, can be as much as 15 years in prison. SB 1337, makes assault and battery on a victim/witness coordinator subject to the same enhanced penalties as assault on a police officer: 25 years in prison if the crime is battery with intent to commit a serious felony, and double the usual penalty if it’s any other offense. Betsy Z. Russell
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