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Friday, February 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Idaho launches justice reform push

Gov. Butch Otter, joined by top state officials from all three branches of government, announces criminal justice reform project on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)
Gov. Butch Otter, joined by top state officials from all three branches of government, announces criminal justice reform project on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – Idaho has some of the nation’s lowest crime rates, but its prison population is growing quickly at a time when most states are seeing declines.

In response, the three branches of state government in Idaho – the governor, the Supreme Court and the Legislature – are coming together to launch an intensive effort to find out what’s going wrong and fix it. The effort will be aided by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.

The state qualified for more than a quarter-million dollars in grant funding for the effort, which Gov. Butch Otter unveiled at a news conference in his office Tuesday.

“Criminal justice is taking a larger and larger share of our state budget every year,” Otter said. Despite Idaho’s low crime rate, one of every 34 males is involved in the criminal justice system and one of every 156 females, he said. Plus, more than a third of those in Idaho’s prisons are repeat offenders.

“What are we not doing while we have them, to prepare them for a life outside of the correctional environment that they end up in?” Otter asked. “What more can we do?”

Other states, including Texas, Kansas and South Carolina, have worked on the “justice reinvestment” approach, which involves data analysis, developing policy options and measuring results.

Some states have seen impressive results. Texas estimated that it averted $340 million in operational costs and $1.5 billion in prison construction costs. South Carolina was expecting an increase of 3,000 prison inmates in 2010 and $300 million in increased costs; instead, its prison population dropped.

“We’re going to use every tool we possibly can,” Otter said. That could include changes in sentencing, treatment, education, rehabilitation and more.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the state is serious about saving money, making communities safer and turning inmates toward more meaningful lives.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick noted that the state’s 64 specialty problem-solving courts, from drug courts to veterans courts, have received national recognition, and welcomed “opportunities to respond more effectively to mental health, substance abuse and livable job opportunities in ways that lower both crime and recidivism.”

A multi-agency working group started meeting on the project Tuesday morning, and a legislative interim committee held its first meeting Tuesday afternoon. The aim is to develop solutions as soon as possible, including some that could be considered in the legislative session that starts in January.

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