Does Idaho's correctional system need an overhaul?

Does Idaho's correctional system need an overhaul?

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by Karen Zatkulak

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KTVB.COM

Posted on February 23, 2014 at 11:15 PM

BOISE -- With millions of taxpayer dollars at stake, some Idahoans say it's time to overhaul our correctional system.

The state's inmate population has grown steadily in recent years, crowding prisons, and costing everyone in the state.

It took nearly a year, dozens of stakeholders, hundreds of interviews, and nearly 600 thousand documents to review Idaho's justice system.

The results showed some staggering facts.

On an average day inside the South Boise Correctional Complex, there are about 5,000 prisoners.

Usually, that means they're at capacity or close to it.

Inmates like Steven Thompson say it's more than overcrowding, it's over punishing.

Thompson admits he's guilty of grand theft and drug possession back in 1998. He was sentenced to 7 to 14 years and 16 years later he's behind bars for the same crimes.

He was released on parole in 2005, but after a parole violation, the parole commission sent him back, without credit for his three years on supervised release.

"Hopeless, like I'm not even given a chance," said Thompson. "To have that time taken from me and told I have to re-serve it, that crushed my family, it crushed me."

Outside the prison, his sister, Cindy Pherigo, is waiting for a release that she says is overdue.

"For being a non-violent situation where he was put in and having to serve longer than he was given and no answer, no correspondence on why," she said.

Thompson isn't alone. The Justice Reinvestment study showed time served for property and drug crimes in Idaho is nearly double the national average.

It said some prisoners serve more than 200-percent longer than their fixed sentence.

LEGISLATION FOR CHANGE

Several legislators were surprised by the findings and decided to push for change.

So surprised, in fact, that two of them, Rep. Richard Wills and Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, drafted legislation for a justice system overhaul.

Wills says it's a major issue that needs to be addressed.

"It's very frustrating, not only for the prisoners but for us as well because that's where we are seeing the recidivism rate increase and that's a money factor," Wills said. "When we see that money going down the drain, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing."

Statistics show the IDOC population across the state has steadily risen over the past decade, with a slight drop in the first month of 2014.

Snapshots of daily prison records show the South Boise Correctional Complex has neared capacity over recent years as well.

According to Wills, over-population isn't the only problem, but also prisons that breed a bad environment.

"We really have a place where they go out there and I believe, learn how to become a better criminal the next time and get away with it," said Wills.

The legislation was discussed in a hearing in mid-February and is based on the the Justice Reinvestment statistics.

Sen. Lodge says the longer prisoners are behind bars, the more it impacts their families, including their children.

Lodge says she was surprised by the research.

"My first reaction was a feeling of sadness," she said.

For Lodge, the biggest issue is the number of inmates who get out, but quickly get sent back in.

"53 percent of them within a three year period of time come back to our system," said Lodge. "That's why we have so many in jail."

And that means a big bump in cost to the state.

IDOC says it costs taxpayers $3,000 per year for an offender who's out, under supervision, and $20,000 for an inmate behind bars.

A JUDGE'S PERSPECTIVE

For judges, it's not about the prison population but public safety, and following punishment guidelines.

We talked with Judge Patrick Owen about the Justice Reinvestment study and the overcrowding issue.

He says while he is aware of the concerns, his job is to sentence each offender appropriately.

"Frankly, I pay a lot of attention to those things and I really am not focused on incremental increase or cost of the consequence."

Owen says there are explanations behind the figures.

For instance, in Thompson's case, he says street time can be credited or not, and it's determined on a case by case basis.

And for some offenders, attempts at treatment programs before sentencing adds up to more prison time.

"From the judge's perspective we certainly understand that in many cases there are a lot of reasons why a defendant would serve much more than the fixed term."

PROGRAM EFFECTS

One of the programs aimed at giving offenders supervision outside prison, after intense treatment, is what's called a Rider.

It gives judges the option to retain jurisdiction, offering an offender treatment and then release in less than a year.

"(Offenders) have on average a sentence of 2.7 years, so we're talking about a significant time and cost savings," says Ashley Dowell, IDOC's Deputy Chief of Education, Treatment, and Re-entry.

Dowell says 5,900 prisoners - 86-percent of those who entered - completed the program in its first 3 years.

But that success isn't seen in the growing prison population over that time.

"There are lots of factors that affect our prison population," said Dowell. "Unfortunately, what we don't have is the side by side comparison of this is the number of inmates in our system and this is the number of inmates in our system who are riders who were successfully diverted from prison and went back out on supervision."

According to the study, 42-percent of those who successfully complete the Rider program re-offend within the next three years.

WHAT'S NEXT

The statistics and stakeholders agree that change is needed to bring down the number of prisoners and the impact on taxpayers pockets.

"I would say it's everybody's problem, I don't think there's a person out there that's not affected by it," said Rep. Wills.

Senators say, if passed, the legislation would cost $33 million up front, but save up to $288 million over the next five years.

They say the legislation would first focus on parole and probation, including better training and more community programs. 

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