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Idaho spends nearly $40 million annually to lock up drug offenders

Idaho spends nearly $40 million annually to lock up drug offenders

Dustin Hurst
February 7, 2014
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February 7, 2014
[post_thumbnail] Marc Levin with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation believes Idaho can save millions of dollars per year in prison costs if it changes sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders.

Idaho spends nearly $40 million annually incarcerating drug offenders, a figure one prison reform analyst thinks is far too high.

Marc Levin, an attorney and director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told IdahoReporter.com that certain reforms and policy changes could reduce the amount the state spends on locking up nonviolent drug offenders.

Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray said his department housed 1,973 inmates serving time for drug-related offenses in 2013. That figure represents about 24 percent of that year’s total prison population.

At a cost of $55.50 per day for taxpayers, locking up so many people for what some critics call low-level offense is costly. The total tab, Ray estimated, rang up to $39,967,061 in 2013.

Or, enough cash to provide a hefty tax cut, hire 780 teachers at $50,000 a year or invest in roads, bridges and other infrastructure upgrades.

Due to Idaho’s sentencing laws, drug offenders in the state serve, on average, 4.1 years, compared with 2.2 years nationally. Levin noted that because many offenders spend their entire sentence behind bars, they go without monitoring following release and “are not held accountable.”

“One of our recommendations is requiring parole of such offenders within 100 to 150 percent of fixed term and reallocating some of the savings to effective post-release supervision,” Levin wrote in an email to IdahoReporter.com. “This reform would reduce the total number of drug offenders on hand by lowering the length of stay.”

Levin advocates for smart, evidence-based reforms that make sense for the state, the offenders and the taxpayers. His mission isn’t solely fiscally driven; rather than seeing offenders wasting away in prison cells, he seeks to build productive citizens.

For example: He wants Idaho to follow Hawaii’s lead in drug sentencing, which gives probation officers and administrators more power and flexibility to deal with offenders. In the Hawaii system, if a probationer or parolee tests positive for drugs, he will spend a weekend in jail, but can keep his job.

If an offender can’t quit, the state or drug courts refer the offender to inpatient treatment, rather than a prison cell.

“All the research shows it is the swiftness and sureness of the sanction more than the length of time that determines the effectiveness, but some probation supervision is still stuck in the old model of letting technical violations pile up without intervening and ultimately having that probationer revoked to prison for many years,” Levin said.

He doesn’t know exactly how much Idaho could save by enacting some common sense reforms, but the number is surely less than the $40 million expended annually to incarcerate them.

Levin isn’t the only person calling out for substantial reformation of Idaho’s penal system. The Justice Center at the Council of State Governments recommends it, too. The center revealed earlier this year that the state could save nearly $288 million through 2019 by enacting smart reforms.

Certain portions of a report the center delivered to Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature in January echoed Levin’s sentiments. The center criticized Idaho’s uncertain and slow responses to probation and parole violations—one of Levin’s complaints.

The report also criticized the state for not providing adequate resources for treatment and community-based supervision, which cost less than incarceration.

Drug offenses have become a major driver in prison population growth. The center’s report points out that drug offenses accounted for about 30 percent of new prison commitments in 2012. The number of offenders sentenced to a prison term increased 23 percent between 2008 and 2012, the report revealed.

If Idaho does nothing, the center projects the state’s total prison population will grow by about 16 percent by 2019, or about 1,332 inmates. If the new influx of prisoners comes to fruition, the state will need to spend $213 million to construct facilities to house the new prisoners, and spend more than $75 million in additional operating costs.

If the state follows the reform model suggested by Levin and the center, inmate population will stay flat or drop slightly.

The policy recommendations offered by the center, including some proposals Levin believes in, will cost Idaho $33 million. Otter called the plan a “no-brainer.”

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