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New sentencing program will help move people out of crowded Ada County Jail, officials hope

The program allows inmates to live at the transition center while they search for a job and take classes to help prepare them for life outside of jail.
Credit: Idaho Press
Chelsea Savoy, a pre-release specialist with the Ada County Sheriff's Office, speaks to a participant in the Ada County work release program, Wednesday, Fe. 5, 2020.

BOISE, Idaho — Ada County’s jail is so crowded that inmates often sleep on the floor. Meanwhile, across the street, the county’s work release building has dozens of empty beds.

People serving a sentence in the work release program are in county custody but can leave for work. The work release center can house 108 inmates, but, because of the program’s requirements, only about 30 people are staying there now, according to the Idaho Press.

The county is taking steps to put the facility to better use and fill the unused dormitory space. Ada County Sheriff’s Office employees, judges and other courthouse officials recently added another option for alternative sentencing in the county, which will allow the sheriff’s office to move more people out of the jail and into the work release center, so long as they’re not deemed to be a risk to the community.

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The new sentencing option is called community transition, and, unlike work release, people aren’t required to have a job to participate in it.

The county is adding a computer lab and classroom to the facility, slated to be fully functional by the end of March, and going forward the building will be known as the community transition center.

This effort will help relieve some of the pressure on the main jail building, but it won’t eliminate the need to build a bigger jail, Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo said.

“It’s really a both-and,” she said.

Still, Lachiondo acknowledged the need to take every opportunity to move people out of the main jail building, which can house 1,116 inmates and is often over the preferred 85% operational capacity, or roughly 950 inmates. On Thursday, there were 1,052 inmates in the jail, according to sheriff’s office spokesman Patrick Orr.

COMMUNITY TRANSITION

The community transition program allows inmates to live at the transition center while they search for a job and take classes to help prepare them for life outside of jail. The center provides all inmates’ meals, bedding and toiletries while they stay there.

“I want them to find a job that’s meaningful to them and something they’ll stick with instead of (something they will) just be done with it when they leave here,” said Chelsea Savoy, a reentry specialist who helps coach people in finding a job as they prepare to leave jail. “I want something they’ll take with them.”

During sentencing, a judge can list the transition center as an option, but it is sheriff’s office employees who decide if a person is a good fit for it. Inmates cannot enter the transition program unless they have 45 days or fewer to serve on their jail sentence.

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One of the classes offered in the program focuses on interactive journaling, said Stephanie Brastrup, alternative sentencing supervisor. Participants in the class are given journaling prompts aimed at helping them confront erroneous thought patterns or criminal thinking. Classes are tailored for individual needs — someone in jail for a drug offense would have different prompts than someone serving time for domestic violence, for example.

When the community transition center officially opens next month, the course will move from the main jail building to the new classroom in the transition center.

Other classes at the center focus on helping people put together resumes and cover letters for job applications, and how to interview for jobs.

“One of the topics is how to talk about your conviction, and so we work on conviction speeches,” Brastrup said. “And we say, ‘OK when you go see an employer, what are you going to say? When you have to mark that box that ‘I’ve been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor,’ how do I talk about that?”

COSTS AND SPACE

The new classroom isn’t the only space in the building under renovation. The room next door to it has been remodeled into a computer lab, where inmates can complete GED classes; upstairs, an unused dormitory kitchen has received new paint and flooring in preparation for more residents. The overhaul cost $160,000 in total, Orr said.

The goal is to get people out of the jail proper.

In 2019, it cost $102.36 per day to house an inmate in the Ada County Jail, according to the sheriff’s office. Brastrup estimated it costs closer to $30 to house them in the work release center. In addition, inmates pay daily fees to participate in the programs there, to help offset the cost to taxpayers.

Credit: Idaho Press
A bunk area where participants in the Ada County work release program sleep, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

As part of the community transition center’s soft opening, the sheriff’s office decreased many of those fees and adopted a sliding scale method of pay instead, calculated based on an inmate’s income and the size of the family they must support. The most an inmate would pay to stay at the community transition center would be $25 per day.

The question of payment is one officials hope to answer as more inmates begin to move into the center. Brastrup said that while inmates would be paying less in fees, there would be more inmates in the center, so she believes funding for the programs would remain about the same — or even increase.

“It’s a gamble for us,” Orr said. “We’re trying to do the right thing. We’re not sure we can afford it yet, but we’re hoping we can.”

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