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News >  Idaho

Frustration With Prison Costs Overwhelms Lawmakers Officials Forced To Choose Between Education, Releasing Juvenile Offenders

Bob Fick Associated Press

Frustrated budget writers stared into the black hole of Idaho’s juvenile detention system on Wednesday and grudgingly threw another $3.6 million in general tax money into it.

“I don’t see any way out,” House Appropriations Chairman Bob Geddes said. “I would put language in the code that says parents should take care of their kids if that would do it.”

Lawmakers complained about the drain of cash away from education and questioned why it costs two to three times more to incarcerate juveniles than adults and why families do not pay any of the expense.

And several demanded some kind of investigation into the entire criminal justice system that now claims twice as much of the state’s general tax receipts as it did a decade ago.

“I guess I’m speechless,” Republican Sen. Dean Cameron of Rupert said.

With another $4.7 million in general tax money approved last year and nearly $3 million more in federal and other funds, the emergency appropriation pushes to almost $11 million what the state will pay private facilities to hold delinquents through midyear.

The state will spend about the same running its own detention facilities.

The additional cash was $1 million more than Gov. Phil Batt expected to have to spend just a month ago.

Juvenile Corrections Director Michael Johnson told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that it is costing an average of $45,000 a year to hold each of the 460 juveniles the state typically has in custody at any one time.

“I don’t understand how it can cost so much for these juvenile programs,” Republican Rep. Hod Pomeroy of Boise said. “The average hard-working people in Idaho don’t make that much in their wages per year. … Most of these juveniles are criminals and we’re spoiling them.

“I just don’t think we should be spending that money.”

Johnson acknowledged the outrage lawmakers and others experience when they see the bills from his department and the adult prison system - the only two agencies that saw any significant increases in spending authority in Batt’s 1998 budget blueprint.

But he said without the financing, the courts would order juveniles released back into the community.

It seemed to leave committee members feeling the pressure from voters who simultaneously want harsh treatment of criminals, reduced taxes and more spending on public education.

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