BOISE – After seven months of intensive study of Idaho’s criminal justice system, researchers have found some surprising trends underlying Idaho’s high incarceration rate despite its low crime rate: More than 40 percent of Idaho’s prison beds are being taken up by offenders who initially were released on probation or parole.
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 by researchers from the Justice Center and the Pew Charitable Trusts found. But within three years, nearly a third of those end up in prison serving full terms.
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 Wednesday.
The solution 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.
Such changes may require spending up-front, to “kick-start” new, more effective supervision programs, Pelka 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 were struck by the data, which is part of a project launched by all three branches of Idaho’s state government in June. The researchers will meet with a working group including state corrections, judicial and law enforcement officials today.
“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.”
Pelka said, “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 41 percent of prison beds taken up by those who once were on parole or probation is much higher than in other states. In North Carolina, for example, that figure is 21 percent; in Kansas, it’s 33 percent.