All Sides Reach Consensus on New Version of Justice Reinvestment Bill

The Spokesman-Review

By Betsy Z. Russell

All sides, including lawmakers, courts, corrections officials, prosecutors and more, have reached consensus on criminal justice reinvestment legislation, with a new bill that was introduced this afternoon. “This is probably one of the few times when you’ve had all three branches of government working together to try to craft something that will help save lives and change lives,” said Senate Judiciary Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

The project has been in the works for 10 months, thanks to assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Pew Trusts. But when the bill was introduced last week, several county prosecutors raised concerns. The new version puts those to rest. A key change: Rather than requiring that non-violent offenders be released when they hit 150 percent of their fixed term, the new bill requires the Parole Commission to establish guidelines for reducing the time that property and drug offenders spend behind bars beyond their fixed terms, and submit annual reports to the Legislature on how many are released by 150 percent of their fixed term. Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association lobbyist Holly Koole said that increased discretion for the Parole Commission addressed prosecutors’ concerns.

The research for the project  showed that while Idaho has the third-lowest crime rate in the nation, it has much higher recidivism – reoffense by released prisoners – than the national average, and half of all those released from Idaho’s prisons go back in within three years. “So our prison population became the second-fastest growing in the country,” Lodge said. The project recommends investing $33 million over the next five years in improvements to parole and probation supervision, community treatment, officer training, and quality assurance measures including data tracking. “If this is implemented effectively, this package will slow down Idaho’s prison population and growth, and save $288 million over the next five years because we won’t have to build a prison,” Lodge said.

The project found that non-violent offenders in Idaho spend twice as long behind bars as they do in the rest of the nation, and the state has the nation’s 8th-highest incarceration rate, despite its low crime rate. Some prosecutors said they thought the inclusion of Idaho’s short-term “rider” prison program skewed the figures, but CSG researchers said even if the riders were excluded, Idaho would have the nation’s 12th highest incarceration rate. Because riders are behind bars only for short periods of 30 to 120 days, their inclusion actually skewed the time spent behind bars by non-violent offenders downward, not upward.

Lodge said the modifications to the bill could slightly reduce the savings. “We’re not going to have exactly the same savings that we had before, but we will have savings,” she said, “and if we do all of this, if everyone cooperates together, we will be able to implement a savings of at least $255 million.” She said, “Our goal from the very first was to find an Idaho solution to increase the public safety and control corrections costs.”