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Editorial: Idaho can still rectify its bungling of prison deal

Is Idaho soft on crime?

It appears so in the case of the Tennessee contractor that failed to adequately staff a prison, and tried to cover it up.

After the Associated Press revealed the chronic understaffing and falsifying of time reports by Corrections Corporation of America, the state Department of Corrections called on the Idaho State Police to conduct an investigation.

The department is taking back control of the state’s largest prison, south of Boise, which CCA has run for more than a decade.

For an entire year, state officials said a criminal investigation was underway, but that turned out to be false. Gov. Butch Otter said he supported the decision to forgo a probe, but changed his tune after releasing CCA from civil liability in exchange for $1 million. On Feb. 18, he directed the ISP to investigate.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the howls of protest if a run-of-the mill suspect were treated with such deference. But Otter was a staunch supporter of prison privatization, so this scandal has been a huge embarrassment. He should’ve known better than to cut a deal with CCA before a criminal investigation was completed.

The best course now is to ensure a thorough and fair review, and to aggressively prosecute if any criminal activity is unearthed.

Idaho State Police Col. Ralph Powell says his agency is underfunded and struggles to carry out basic duties, so it would appear to be ill-suited for the task. Plus, the agency declined to investigate the first time, a decision that should give pause to those seeking unbiased findings.

Top legislative Democrats are calling for the FBI to take charge, saying the ISP lacks the manpower and expertise to probe corporate wrongdoing. Much of the mess revolves around administrative and contract issues, and the FBI has expertise in white-collar crimes. So this is a reasonable request.

The CCA facility has also been hit with reports that it had become the “gladiator school.” Lawsuits allege that inmate-on-inmate fights were encouraged. The AP released video of an inmate brutally assaulting another for several minutes while guards failed to intervene. The victim suffered permanent damage.

What the decadelong CCA experience shows is that privatization failed Idaho. An AP investigation in 2012 concluded the state could run the prison just as cheaply, and Otter has concurred.

Furthermore, if the state is serious about adopting “smart justice” reforms that seek alternatives to prison time – and save taxpayer dollars – then privatization is a bad match. Contracts with private prison companies generally include clauses that call for maximum occupancy. Empty cells hurt profits.

Idaho’s leaders can still show they’re tough on crime by encouraging a complete investigation into CCA wrongdoing. If that means bringing in the feds, so be it.

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