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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Panel says Idaho wastes millions jailing nonviolent offenders

BOISE – Nonviolent criminals are being kept behind bars in Idaho twice as long as they are in the rest of the nation.

That’s among the major findings of a nine-month study into how Idaho could spend its money better and get better outcomes from its criminal justice system. Researchers for the Council of State Governments and the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the state has one of the nation’s highest and fastest-growing incarceration rates, despite its low rates of crime.

Idaho House Judiciary Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper, called the data a “wake-up call.”

The study also showed that Idaho suffers from a “revolving door of recidivism,” driven in part by a system that sends probationers and parolees back to prison – filling 41 percent of the state’s prison beds – without tailoring the penalties to their violations. If the state were to enact a package of reforms, the researchers estimated it could save $255 million on prison costs in five years, while investing just $33 million into better supervision and tracking programs.

“It just doesn’t even make sense that we would not want to go that direction if we possibly can,” Wills said, urging a joint legislative committee to come together around legislation to be crafted by January to kick off the reforms. “The lengthy prison stays for those nonviolent offenses are really costing us a lot of money.”

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the Senate Judiciary chairwoman, said, “We are not getting soft on crime. I don’t want anyone to leave here saying that we’re going to be soft on crime by trying to improve the way we help people become responsible, accountable, taxpaying citizens.” She noted that close to 90 percent of Idaho’s prison inmates eventually are released into society. “We want to be sure that they’re ready to be in our community.”

Mark Pelka, Justice Center program director for the Council of State Governments, displayed a bar chart to the lawmakers showing that the average time served behind bars before first parole for nonviolent property crimes in Idaho is 3.9 years, dwarfing the U.S. average of 2.3 years, and for drug crimes Idaho’s average is 4.1 years, compared with a national average of 2.2 years. Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, was stunned.

“Just looking at that, we’re grossly out of what would be considered normal parameters,” Guthrie said.

Pelka responded, “This is the best national comparison you can have, based upon groups of offenses and how much time they’re serving inside the walls.”

Idaho follows 10 other states in working with CSG and Pew on “justice reinvestment” projects. In Idaho, all three branches of government have joined in the project, led by the governor and Department of Correction, the court system and the Legislature.

“I think it’s something that we’ve needed to do for some time,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who serves on the joint legislative committee, dubbed the Justice Reinvestment Interim Committee. “When we see the situation that we have lower crime rates and more incarceration, I think that’s upside down. Something has to be done.”

A final report on the data and recommendations will be compiled over the next month and presented to lawmakers as they convene their session in January.

Said Wills, “We want to have something concrete to bring forth this year, and I think that can really happen.”