In the sometimes unrelenting bleakness of the political landscape there is the occasional bright spot. A meeting of the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Interim Committee of the Idaho Legislature just might have been one of them.
Although no legislation has been brought forth, the overall positive response to the presentation given by the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) suggests that for the first time in a long time, Idaho might actually take some positive steps toward reducing the ruinous impact that its criminal justice system has on the lives of so many Idahoans.
Now don't mistake me for an optimist; the proposals are modest and even if adopted in full would only serve to stem the tide of our rapidly expanding prison population rather than actually reduce its levels. It's still a good start, though, and would help to alleviate some of the more appalling numbers that were presented to the committee including the fact that between 2010 and 2012, Idaho had the second-largest growth in prison population nationally.
In 2011, Idaho's adult prison incarceration rate was the 11th highest in the country. In 2012, it was the eighth. The problem is not just the number of individuals who are incarcerated, however; it's also the length of time they spend behind bars. The average amount of time that nonviolent offenders spend locked up in Idaho is almost twice as long as the national average.
According to data provided by CSG, the reform proposals that will likely be considered by the Legislature this session have the potential to save Idaho $288 million in operating and construction costs, to reduce revocations to prison by 15 percent and to reduce the active supervision caseload of probation/parole officers by nearly a third.
There is the potential for Idaho's criminal justice system to be improved by these proposals, but it's only the first step. Idaho needs to look not only at what happens to individuals once they are found to have violated the law, but also at the laws themselves. Idaho has thousands of laws on the books and many of them criminalize actions that do not actually violate the rights of individuals or cause harm to anyone other than possibly the violator.
The issue of overcriminalization remains a serious problem that pushes thousands of Idahoans who have never harmed anyone into a system that is designed primarily for those who have. In order to truly correct the problems in its criminal justice system, Idaho needs more than just reform; it needs to legalize actions that don't inflict fraud or force on others.