The Idaho Department of Correction is facing backlash from Kootenai County residents over plans for a “community re-entry center” that would house inmates nearing the ends of their prison terms and those who fail probation or parole.
The proposed facility is one of several projects aimed at reducing overcrowding in the state’s prison system, where roughly 62% of inmates are held for probation or parole violations – a higher rate than any other state in the country. The state prison population surpassed 9,100 for the first time last month, and that number is only expected to grow.
The Idaho Legislature set aside $12.2 million for the proposed re-entry center during its last session, and the Department of Correction is searching for a site in Kootenai County. Preliminary plans call for a 130-bed facility, staffed around the clock by correctional officers, that provides services such as employment assistance and substance use counseling.
Officials say they are considering new construction or renovating an existing building. Soon-to-be-released inmates would be allowed to leave the facility to begin working in the community. Those housed at the facility would be selected on a case-by-case basis.
Opponents of the project say they recognize the need for programs that ease inmates’ transition back into society, but they don’t trust the Department of Correction and don’t want the area to become a final stop for violent people and sex offenders from other parts of the state.
“Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am completely aware of the need for this type of facility,” John Grimm, a Hayden resident who’s running for Kootenai County sheriff, said during a community meeting Wednesday evening. “And to the young man who has made a series of bad choices – and now wants to get his mind right, and come back home, and do right and reintegrate properly – to him, I’ll extend my hand and say, ‘Welcome home.’ ”
But Grimm, who owns a machining shop in Hayden, said he doesn’t believe the Department of Correction can safely operate the proposed re-entry center and accused the agency’s director, Josh Tewalt, of sending mixed messages about how the facility would operate. Other attendees of Wednesday’s meeting said they worry about high recidivism rates and the potential for people to run away from the facility.
Tewalt, in an interview Wednesday, said most beds in the facility would be used for inmates nearing the ends of their prison sentences to eliminate “that huge departure from prison life.” Some beds would be reserved for probationers and parolees, which he described as “a new concept” recently approved by the Board of Correction.
Dewalt said the department supervises nearly 17,000 people on felony probation and parole, including about 2,000 people in Idaho’s five northern counties. Judges and supervision officers have few options when those people slip up or lose a job, so they are often sent back to jails or traditional prisons. The Kootenai County facility would provide an alternative to help probationers and parolees succeed.
“I think there’s some confusion, but also some genuine concern that we’re looking to move a bunch of inmates from Boise up to North Idaho, and that’s not what it is,” Tewalt said. “We’re talking about providing better service to a population that is going to return to the area, and then also providing some additional tools and interventions for the population already there on felony supervision.”
In an email, department spokesman Jeff Ray said the facility would serve inmates, probationers and parolees from Idaho’s First and Second judicial districts, which cover Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Clearwater, Idaho, Kootenai, Latah, Lewis, Nez Perce and Shoshone counties – the entire panhandle region.
But, Ray said, “Our intention is to put resources closest to where they are needed. We believe the supervised population and the number of people releasing to District 1 would support the facility.
“Much will depend on where the facility is ultimately located. I want to make this point very clear – it’s not our intention to bring offenders from around the state to North Idaho.”
About 70 people attended Wednesday’s meeting at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. Grimm spoke in opposition to the re-entry center along with Hayden City Councilman Matt Roetter and local attorney Duane Rasmussen, who led opposition to a proposed Department of Correction work-release center in Kootenai County in 2001.
Roetter told the crowd that he plans to introduce a City Council resolution promising Hayden will not grant the Department of Correction a special-use permit or access to the city’s sewer lines. He suggested local leaders might succeed in blocking the project if other cities follow suit.
Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks received applause when he spoke out against the project at Wednesday’s meeting, saying, “Hell no,” and, “Not in my backyard.”
“If there were a single serious crime, a single rape, a single murder because of this, I would feel personally responsible as an elected official,” Brooks said.
Ryan Higgins, a lieutenant in the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Ben Wolfinger would welcome a re-entry center that serves inmates arrested in the area, “but he doesn’t want Kootenai County to become a hub for IDOC to drop anyone they want.”
“If you could get IDOC to say, ‘Yes, this will only serve Kootenai County inmates,’ I’d be all for it,” he said. “But that’s the problem: They’re not going to promise that.”
Tewalt, the Department of Correction director, said he looks forward to having more detailed discussions about the re-entry center with members of the community.
“These types of concepts,” he said, “they just aren’t going to work if there’s not community support.”
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