Now That Legislature Has Approved Prison Reform, What Comes Next in Implementing It?

By Austin Hill

As Idaho officials have begun considering the implementation of the state’s sweeping new prison reform law passed by the Legislature, two key state agencies are taking a hard look at current usages of some very specific government services. Additionally, policy experts from a national nonprofit group that advised the Legislature on the undertaking of the reforms are working with the state to aid in its implementation.

“My co-workers have been assisting Idaho’s policymakers, state agencies and other stakeholders on how to phase in this new law,” Marc Pelka, program director for the nationwide Counsel of State Governments (CSG) told Through a grant provided by the Pew Research Foundation in Washington, D.C., Idaho was able to have Pelka and the CSG conduct a thorough study of the state’s criminal justice system last year. Pelka then advised an interim committee of state legislators on how to make policy changes.

Earlier this year the Senate and the House unanimously approved Senate Bill 1357, known as the “justice reinvestment” bill. By changing sentencing and parole policies and providing more rehabilitative services for low-risk offenders, the law seeks to reduce recidivism rates, avert prison growth, hold offenders accountable for their crimes and, ultimately, to increase public safety.

“As a state, Idaho has one of the fastest growing prison populations in the country,” Pelka explained, “so one of our first tasks will be to reduce that rate of growth of the prison population.”

The goals and objectives of the new law, along with Pelka’s analysis, are bringing about a new level of scrutiny of the Gem State’s current correctional and social care programs.

For example, Jeff Ray, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC), told that the prison population in Idaho is currently 87 percent male and only 13 percent female. Pelka said that while the IDOC will eventually begin to more carefully examine an offender’s risk of re-offense, female prisoners can pose unique challenges.

“Many of our assessment tools are applied to both male and female offenders, but some programs have to be specifically tailored to women,” said Ray, noting that it’s too early to tell how exactly the new incarceration policies will impact assessment procedures or costs at the IDOC, but says that “staff from IDOC, the courts, the Idaho parole commission and the CSG are working on this right now.”

Given the reform measure’s new emphasis on counseling and rehabilitative services for low-risk offenders, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW) has begun to scrutinize the current population using state mental health services and to consider how demand for those services might change.

According to IDHW spokesperson Tom Shanahan, approximately 51 percent of state mental health services are currently provided to women with 49 percent going to men, but the agency understands that this could change as the prison reform law will likely produce a new influx of male offenders who are paroled and assigned counseling services.

Other points made by Shanahan:

- IDHW is prepared for possible changes in the consumption of other state social services. “The justice reinvestment law could change the demand for Medicaid, food stamps and, I would say, even the demand for child assistance help as well.” According to IDHW’s latest data, women consume approximately 54 percent of all Medicaid services and about 55 percent of food stamp benefits in the state.

- If the reform law allows would-be prisoners to be paroled and, in turn, those offenders are able to work, that could reduce the consumption of Medicaid and food stamps, yet it may be difficult to connect all those factors. “My colleagues and I have discussed this and we believe this is an interesting theory, but we may not have all the data to prove it.”

- When individuals apply for Medicaid and food stamps, things like household income and number of persons in the household are considered. However, “we don’t really ask if the household is in need of services because a family member is incarcerated, so we don’t really know if incarceration is driving the need.”

- Shanahan doubts that IDHW will begin collecting this type of data and suggested that it might not need to do so, but said that the impact of the prison reform law will still likely be tangible. “If indeed parolees are able to work and contribute to their household income, that will presumably change the milieu of those who are applying for services.”

Pelka said that the first of the new reform policies are set to be implemented in January of 2015 and that he and his colleagues will be advising Idaho officials between now and then. “I would expect that we’ll see noticeable impact from some of the early reforms in the calendar year 2015. Others will become more measurable over the coming years.”