The Idaho Senate voted 34-1 today in favor of SB 1208, legislation from Senate Judiciary Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, to expand the state’s current program that allows inmate labor to be used by Idaho farmers. Lodge, who also sponsored the original legislation in 2014, said it’s been working well; this year’s bill would expand it by removing the restriction that the inmates be employed in the “production, harvesting and processing of perishable agricultural food products.” Instead, they could be employed in producing, harvesting or processing any agricultural product in Idaho.
“In Idaho we are experiencing an unparalleled low unemployment rate,” Lodge told the Senate. “Farmers cannot find enough laborers to take on seasonal work in our Idaho agricultural industry.”
Lodge said up to 260 minimum-security inmates, both men and women, now work in the program at some point during the year, sorting and packing potatoes in eastern Idaho or picking and packing fruit in the Treasure Valley. The bill would open up the program to horticulture, forestry, wine-making, livestock, bee-keeping, and any other agricultural industry in the state. Inmates volunteer for the program; their pay covers the security and transportation costs, plus part goes to their fines and victim restitution.
“Inmates learn marketable skills and have money available to them upon their release,” Lodge told the Senate. “The program provides agricultural employers a steady workforce when they struggle to attract and retain workers, giving farmers protection against loss.”
Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, cast the only dissenting vote. Before the vote, she also disclosed a potential conflict of interest under Senate rules because the bill would apply to the forestry industry, in which Keough works in her day job. She’s the executive director of Associated Logging Contractors Inc. in North Idaho.
The bill now moves to the House side. To become law, it needs to clear a committee there and then the full House, and be signed into law by Gov. Butch Otter.