October 30, 2013 in Idaho

Study: Idaho prisons swelling with returned parolees, probationers

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - After seven months of intensive study of Idaho’s criminal justice system, researchers from the Center for Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts have found some surprising trends underlying Idaho’s high incarceration rate but low and dropping crime rate: More than 40 percent of Idaho’s prison beds are being taken up by returned probationers and parolees.

Fully 84 percent of Idaho’s felony offenders are initially sentenced to probation or a short-term prison program followed by release on probation, the study found, as the state’s justice system deems that a better sentence for them than a prison term. But within three years, nearly a third of those end up in prison serving full terms instead.

Now, 41 percent of Idaho’s prison beds are taken up by offenders who were released on probation or parole, but sent back to prison for various reasons – far above the rate in other states. In North Carolina, for example, that figure is 21 percent; in Kansas, it’s 33 percent.

The offenders who were sent back to Idaho prisons from either probation or parole in 2012 alone will stay in prison for an average of nearly two more years, and will cost the state $41 million, the researchers found. “There’s a real financial stake,” Mark Pelka, program director at the Justice Center, which is operated by the Council of State Governments, told Idaho lawmakers today.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, Idaho’s House Judiciary Committee chairman and a longtime Idaho State Police officer, said, “I had no idea it was that high. … That’s absolutely staggering when you think about it.”

The answer may include major reforms to Idaho’s supervision systems, so fewer offenders fail those programs and head back to prison, along with more targeted consequences for probationers or parolees who violate rules.

“You could spend less on prisons and corrections if you received better outcomes from supervision,” Pelka told the Idaho Legislature’s Justice Reinvestment Interim Committee. “If you can do that right … you will see less cost, you will see less people coming to prison, and you will see less crime.”

Still, such changes may require spending up-front, to “kick-start” new, more effective supervision programs, he said.

The researchers also are examining Idaho’s criminal sentencing laws and other factors. The state’s specialty courts, for groups from veterans to substance abusers, drew praise, as did its widespread use of assessment tools to identify offenders’ risk factors and needs.

Lawmakers on the bipartisan legislative committee were struck by the data, which is part of a project launched by all three branches of Idaho’s state government in June; on Thursday, the researchers will meet with a working group including state corrections, judicial and law enforcement officials.

“Given some of our budgeting challenges, it should be of great concern to all of us to find out that it is clear we could be more efficient and save a lot of money,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. “I’ve always thought that moving toward more community treatment is more cost-effective and more humane. I think this is something we’ve needed to do for a long time.”

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, a former deputy Kootenai County prosecutor, said the “bleak” recidivism figures weren’t surprising to him. If policy changes can “make probation more successful, I’m extremely intrigued,” Malek said. He noted that the project thus far has been devoid of partisanship or “grandstanding,” and said everyone involved shares the same goals. “I’m very hopeful,” he said.

Pelka said, “The very good news is you have a declining crime rate. … Between 2007 and 2011, as your resident population grew, your crime rate decreased. … You’re enjoying one of the lowest crime rates in the country.” Yet, Idaho’s prison population grew 10 percent from 2008 to 2012, and it’s projected to grow another 7.5 percent in the next three years. “When you look at the reason why, you see a revolving door,” Pelka said. “You can begin to bend that curve down if you can improve outcomes for people on supervision.”

The lawmakers also heard a presentation from South Dakota officials on their state’s justice reinvestment project; there, state leaders discovered, to their surprise, that 81 percent of their prison inmates were non-violent offenders. Major reforms followed.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter hailed the presentation, saying, “As Idaho looks for solutions that address the unique needs of our criminal justice system, hearing how South Dakota approached similar issues is enlightening. … Our state is at a crossroads, and we need to choose a path that best protects the public and enables us to be better stewards of tax dollars.”

The legislative panel also heard from retired longtime Deputy Idaho Attorney General David High, who, along with wife Lindy, sent a personal letter to the committee entitled “A View from the Bottom” about their experience with their son, who is serving time in prison related to a drug addiction. He was released on parole, and was successful for a year before relapsing, but under Idaho’s parole system, was returned to prison.

The Highs noted that current Idaho policy regarding failed parolees is “inconsistent with national research recommendations,” and said the state could both save money and better protect public safety by expanding and improving its parole system.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, co-chair of the interim committee and the Senate Judiciary chair, praised the Highs for coming forward. “They actually stated in their letter what the study has been showing us,” she said. “They were right on.”

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