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‘Justice reinvestment’ bill focuses on Idaho’s high rate of incarceration

‘Justice reinvestment’ bill focuses on Idaho’s high rate of incarceration

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
February 13, 2014
[post_thumbnail]Marc Pelka from the Council of State Governments believes Idaho's incarceration rate, the eighth-highest in the nation, can be reduced with proper reforms.

Describing the hearing as “an informational meeting only,” Sen. Patti Ann Lodge, R-Huston, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, and her committee heard testimony Wednesday on legislation that would significantly change the state’s criminal sentencing and incarceration procedures and processes.

Under consideration is Senate Bill 1331, the “justice reinvestment” bill. “We will not be voting on this today,” said Lodge.

Lodge and the other committee members were joined by Rep. Richard Wills, R-Glenns Ferry. Lodge and Wills were co-chairs of an interim committee that studied Idaho’s criminal justice system last year, and heard recommendations on how to improve it.

In December, Marc Pelka of the nonprofit Council of State Governments spoke to the interim committee about research that had been conducted on Idaho’s justice system. Wednesday he noted to the Senate committee that “Idaho has the eighth-highest rate of incarceration in the nation. Idaho is a low crime state, but your recidivism rate is quite high.”

Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, asked Pelka, “You stated that we have a high incarceration rate, but we are a low crime state. How do you respond to the person who simply says that Idaho has a low crime rate because we put the bad guys in jail?”

Pelka replied, “Idaho does put offenders in jail and that’s not altogether a bad thing, but research shows that there is not a direct correlation between high incarceration rates and low crime. Idaho’s incarceration rate is disproportionately high, and we believe your sentencing and parole policies are not accomplishing what they could be.”

The committee also heard from Bryan Taylor, Canyon County prosecuting attorney. “I agree with putting money and resources into rehabilitation and parole efforts, but I believe we need some rewriting of the bill,” he told the committee. “I believe members of this committee need to continually ask themselves, ‘do you want to risk public safety for the sake of saving money?’ I believe the way the bill is currently written there are parts of it that would put the public at risk. The voice that isn’t really heard through all of this is the voice of the victim.”

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, asked Taylor “how would you rewrite this? Rather than just casting stones, give me an alternative. And if you can’t give me an answer, then I’m going to be right where I am now, and right now I’m in a place where I believe we need to move forward.”

Taylor responded that he received the bill late last week and has not had time to go over it to the point of offering revisions, but “maybe I can supply some written alternatives for you in the next 48 hours or so.”

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, asked Taylor “what do you believe it is that we are doing wrong in Idaho that has led us to have the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation?”

Taylor pointed to a lack of commitment and resources for treatment of offenders.

“But you do understand that a part of this plan is to put more resources into treatment efforts, correct?” Bock responded.

“I see that, but again, I’ll follow up with you and Sen. Davis with additional input,” Taylor said.

Grant Loebs, prosecutor for Twin Falls County, told committee members “I will try not to repeat what the previous prosecutor said, but I largely agree with him. I’ve been working for nearly 20 years on subjects like this. Nearly 80 percent of offenders in my community go straight to probation and that’s a serious problem.” Noting that the bill is “not all bad,” Loebs declared that the bill improves the probation process in Idaho.

But, he cautioned, “We keep hearing that Idaho has the eighth-highest incarceration rate, but that’s because Idaho’s prison system is, by designation of the Legislature, very unique. We have a rider system, it’s not like a conventional prison system. I am alarmed by this legislation and I believe, as written, it is dangerous.”

Under the state’s rider system, offenders are sentenced to a rehab program behind bars for a short period, and if they pass, they are released to probation. If not, they must serve the full sentencing term.

Geoffrey Talmon, attorney for the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Center for Defense of Liberty, said his “organization supports the reform effort, but we believe the bill needs some revisions. We believe there needs to be a clearer distinction between violent and nonviolent behavior. I like the idea that there is the presumption that if you make a mistake, we can offer correction and put you back on the right path. We need some more clarity on the category distinctions.”

Note: IdahoReporter.com is published by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

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