By: Marc Levin & Geoffrey Talmon
In years past, some saw criminal justice reform in Idaho as a political hot potato, but the issue has recently become a priority, giving policymakers an opportunity to harvest gains for both public safety and taxpayers. The Idaho Legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 1357, which provides this opportunity.
It can’t come soon enough. Idaho has the nation’s eighth-highest incarceration rate, and its prison population is projected to grow 16 percent by 2019. Building and operating the prisons needed to absorb this growth would take an estimated $288-million toll on the state’s taxpayers.
While locking up dangerous and violent people is worth every penny, Idaho is not getting the best return on investment in the corrections system. The rate at which formerly incarcerated people in Idaho return to prison (“recidivism”) is well above the national average, driven largely by insufficient substance abuse and mental health programming in the community. In fact, some 40 percent of people in Idaho prisons on any given day are probation and parole violators, many of whom have returned to prison due to technical violations of the terms of their supervision, not for committing new offenses.
Fortunately, Senate Bill 1357 was developed by the Justice Reinvestment Interim Legislative Committee in consultation with judges, prosecutors, sheriffs, and other stakeholders to address these and other challenges by strengthening alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.
For example, the legislation calls for swift, certain, and graduated sanctions and incentives to increase compliance with the terms of probation and parole. Such sanctions can include a curfew, short stays in jail, community service, and increased reporting to the probation or parole officer. Using these sanctions for technical violations, such as missing an appointment, are proven to be far more cost-effective than waiting for such violations to pile up and then revoking the person to prison for many years.
The bill would also help focus limited probation resources on those offenders who pose the greatest risk of reoffending by creating a pathway for compliant, low-risk probationers to earn their way to a less-intensive supervision unit. Currently, Idaho has an average probation term of five years, which is two-thirds longer than the national average. Research shows that keeping low-risk and nonviolent offenders on active supervision long after they have met all of their obligations diverts resources from the monitoring of higher-risk individuals who are most likely to reoffend.
Perhaps most importantly, the legislation will reallocate $33 million of the savings from averted prison costs into probation and parole officer training, proven mental health and substance abuse programs, and quality assurance measures that involve regularly evaluating assessment instruments and treatment programs to ensure they are being used effectively.
States across the country have successfully adopted similar reforms. For example, South Dakota enacted comprehensive criminal justice reform in 2013 led by Governor Daugaard. Other states that have enacted comprehensive policy changes over the last several years include Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
In 2007, Texas employed the justice reinvestment approach instead of managing its prison population growth by building more prisons. As a result, the state has been able to close three prisons, saving tens of millions of dollars for taxpayers. Most importantly, the crime rate in Texas has continued to fall, faster even than the national decrease in crime. The state now has the lowest crime rate since 1968.
Senate Bill 1357 does not include every criminal justice reform that Idaho should adopt. For example, the state should protect employers who hire ex-offenders from lawsuits and repeal many non-traditional crimes, such as the offenses of up to six months in prison for violating rules of the Cherry Commission and Apple Commission. However, if Idaho policymakers do not advance the current proposal, the most urgent drivers of growth contributing to the quarter-billion-dollar price tag Idaho taxpayers face will continue unabated. Failing to act on Senate Bill 1357 would also be a missed opportunity to reduce recidivism by 15 percent through strengthened probation and parole supervision and targeting officer and treatment resources where they will have the biggest impact on cutting crime. Clearly, given the successes in so many other states and the high stakes for Idaho’s future, the time is ripe for policymakers to deliver a better public safety return on taxpayers’ dollars
Marc Levin is Policy Director of Right on Crime (www.rightoncrime.com), a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Geoffrey Talmon is Director of the Center for Defense of Liberty, a public interest litigation project of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.