February 5, 2010 in Idaho

Further budget cuts would mean releasing Idaho prisoners

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

This photo shows the Idaho Maximum Security Institution south of Boise. Idaho’s corrections chief told lawmakers Friday that budget cuts are hitting prisons hard enough that even prison guards are now taking unpaid furloughs, and further cuts beyond those already recommended by the governor for next year will mean releasing prisoners.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - The only way to cut more deeply into Idaho’s state prisons budget than Gov. Butch Otter already has proposed is to begin releasing prisoners, the state’s prisons chief warned state lawmakers Friday.

Budget cuts have hit Idaho’s prison system hard enough that even guards in already-understaffed prisons are now taking 28 unpaid furlough hours a year.

“I think it’s my duty to remind you, these kinds of cuts are not sustainable as we look into the future,” state Corrections Director Brent Reinke told the Legislature’s joint budget committee. “We walk a fine line between efficient and ineffective government. … We simply cannot continue to do more with less, we must do less if more budget cuts are required.”

Reinke said the system can function with Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed budget, which includes a $2 million transfer from the budget stabilization fund for critical personnel costs. The governor’s budget calls for a 4.4 percent overall increase in state funding for prisons next year, to $157.3 million, after an 8.8 percent cut last year. That still leaves the department trying to house and supervise more offenders with less money than in 2008, and would require continued furloughs of department employees.

However, lawmakers, concerned over lagging state revenues, are leaning toward deeper cuts throughout the state budget than Otter’s proposed.

If Idaho had to cut another $5 million from its prison budget, Reinke said, it’d have to release about 250 inmates. Legally, the department can’t do that on its own, he noted; state lawmakers would have to order it.

“It’s a policy decision that they’re going to have to make,” Reinke said. At the prisons, he said, “We don’t control the front door, we don’t control the back door.” The prison system merely houses and supervises the inmates it receives.

Already, due to budget cuts, the department has imposed 80,000 unpaid furlough hours on employees, is holding open 49 positions, has cut another 44, and has eliminated paid overtime.

Idaho has only one correctional officer for every 50 adult inmates, Reinke said. Every corrections employee - including Reinke - is taking unpaid furloughs due to budget cuts.

“The governor understands very clearly the challenges we face,” Reinke said. “We can make cuts required in the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal as proposed. It’s not going to be easy, but we can do it without jeopardizing our staff, the public and our inmates.”

Idaho’s inmate population, though, is beginning to grow again after a nearly two-year drop, and a recent performance evaluation of the department suggested the prisons are understaffed as is. “We walk a very fine line,” Reinke said. “Are we at risk? Every day. But we’ve been that way for quite a while.”

The department has a privately-built, privately-run Correctional Alternative Placement Program facility scheduled to open in June, which will have 432 beds and offer residential substance abuse treatment programs of 90, 120 and 270 days. Reinke estimates the treatment programs will save the state $8 million by 2013 in reduced regular prison stays.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked if the state could save money in next year’s budget by delaying the opening. Reinke responded that the department is counting on the new facility; a temporary unit housing 200 inmates in a former warehouse - in which there was a riot last January - closes in June and becomes a warehouse again. The department also has closed 150 of its costliest beds at existing state prisons this year because of the funding crunch.

“The CAPP facility is about meeting those bed needs with our growth rate currently at 4 percent,” Reinke said. Without it, he said, the state likely would have to start sending inmates out of state again before the end of fiscal year 2011.

That’s the opposite of the department’s recent push, which has brought home all inmates who were being housed out of state for lack of cell space to save $1.4 million a year.

After his budget hearing before lawmakers Friday, Reinke told reporters, “The governor has made it very clear in his recommendation that he wants to support CAPP.” Private contracts, including the CAPP facility, are the only increases in the governor’s proposed prison budget for next year, Reinke said.

“We’re continuing our furloughs into 2011,” he said. “The difference in CAPP is that it’s going to help bring our population down. It’s well worth the investment.”

Reinke said Idaho now has 1,000 fewer prisoners than 2008 projections showed it would have by now, and is spending $21 million less on corrections. The reasons: Lower crime rates, fewer probation revocations, accelerated parole releases, and increased use of such measures as treatment programs and drug courts.

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