Arrow-right Camera
News >  Idaho

Drug treatment trimming Idaho prison growth

BOISE - Idaho’s prison population is down, defying a steep multi-year growth trend and signaling, state officials say, that the state’s new coordinated approach to substance abuse treatment is paying off.

“We were able to change history this year,” Debbie Field, head of Gov. Butch Otter’s Office on Drug Policy, told lawmakers this morning. “We actually entered the year with fewer inmates than we started the (previous) year with.”

The state had 7,290 prison inmates on Jan. 1, 2009, down by 82 from the Jan. 1, 2008 figure of 7,372. The current inmate population is 611 below the number projections has suggested would be behind bars this year.

Brent Reinke, state prisons chief, said, “Our crime numbers across the state are relatively flat.”

But the state has seen more people complete substance-abuse treatment, more inmates released on parole, fewer probation violations and promising results from specialized drug courts and mental health courts. “We’re seeing some great things come out of the specialty courts,” Reinke said.

Field pitched the budget request today for statewide substance abuse services, which had been estimated to cost Idaho $9.3 million, across various agencies ranging from the Department of Health and Welfare to prisons, courts and juvenile corrections. Otter is recommending just $5.2 million in state general funds, plus a one-time draw of $1.9 million from the state’s Millenium Fund, which contains proceeds from a nationwide tobacco settlement. That totals 7.1 million, $2.2 million less than the request.

Field said, “Whatever we are given, we’re going to leverage because of this partnership. It’s powerful.”

She told the Legislature’s joint budget committee that the coordinated activities, overseen by her office and an interagency committee, are making a clear difference. The number of patients completing treatment is up 54 percent. Drug and mental health courts have had 425 “graduates,” who have given birth to 34 drug-free babies and shown much-reduced recidivism rates. Drug arrests by the Idaho State Police and other state law-enforcement agencies dropped 14 percent from 2006 to 2008.

For the coming year, the Office of Drug Policy requested a $475,600 operating budget, in addition to the statewide substance abuse services request. Otter recommended no state general funds for the office’s operation, but instead called for a one-time draw on the Millenium Fund to operate the office next year.

Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, questioned why the joint legislative committee that oversees the Millenium Fund, which held hearings in October on which projects to fund but hasn’t yet made a decision, wasn’t told about the governor’s plans for that money. The committee has heard from both state agencies and non-profits that have prevention programs they want funded.

Roger Brown, the governor’s financial analyst for that budget, said at that point, the state’s revenue picture hadn’t yet become so dire. “The mission of the Office of Drug Policy dovetails beautifully with the Millenium Fund,” he said.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I think it’s important that we continue the efforts we had in the past. If in this economic time, we have to take money out of the Millenium Fund to do so, I’m OK with that.” Some other projects may have to wait, he said. “I can think of three or four things that are absolutely important to be funded out of the Millenium Fund, and this is one of them.”

Top stories in Idaho

Federal agency approves Idaho field burning rules

UPDATED: 12:41 p.m.

Federal officials have approved Idaho’s request to loosen field burning rules that backers say offer more flexibility to disperse smoke away from people but that health advocates say will lead to breathing problems for some area residents.