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Prison study: Idaho criminal justice system is doing well, but a few reforms would help

Prison study: Idaho criminal justice system is doing well, but a few reforms would help

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
December 13, 2013
[post_thumbnail]Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, is co-chair of an interim legislative committee examining ways to improve the state's criminal justice system.

“Idaho is not in trouble with our criminal justice system,” said Rep. Richard Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, co-chair of the Idaho Justice Reinvestment Interim Committee, which is comprised of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. “We’re doing well, but we’re going to build on it and do it more efficiently,” he told the other committee members.

The committee, which was formed through legislation passed earlier this year, was established for the purpose of conducting a complete study of Idaho’s criminal justice system. Idaho was among several states awarded the opportunity to have the Council of State Governments (CSG) conduct a prison system study through a grant from the Pew Research Foundation in Washington, D.C.

The CSG defines “justice reinvestment” as a “data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and strengthen neighborhoods.”

The committee of the Idaho Legislature met at the Capitol Thursday to hear a presentation from CSG based on detailed research that CSG has compiled about Idaho’s prison populations and recidivism rates.

Mark Pelka, program director of the CSG, told the committee that while Idaho has relatively low rates of crime, the state’s incarceration rates are nonetheless relatively high. “You have a very fine justice system in your state,” Pelka said. “You are already investing a lot of resources in to your system and in many ways it is a very enviable system.”

He explained that his recommendations for Idaho would help lower recidivism rates, avert prison growth, hold offenders accountable for their crimes and increase public safety.

Pelka explained that among the reasons for Idaho’s high incarceration rates are that the state does not do an adequate job distinguishing between high-risk and low-risk convicts, and because it isn’t addressing its unusually high recidivism rate among parolees. Additionally, he said that the prison sentences for those convicted in Idaho of nonviolent drug and property-related crimes are on average 1.8 times as lengthy as the national average for sentencing of similar crimes.

“It appears that we are grossly out of proportion with the rest of the country on sentencing,” commented Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon. “Would you say that is a fair characterization?”

“There is no apples-to-apples comparison here,” Pelka replied. “Every state is different, obviously, but the statistics here are nonetheless noteworthy.”

Pelka said that “we looked at how recidivism rates vary according to the risk level of the convict. A person who is of low risk does better going to probation than if they go to prison first and then go to probation.” He suggested that a more careful examination of a convict’s risk level can help ascertain the criminal’s socialization capabilities and family connections, both of which are key factors in the ability for convicts to become rehabilitated.

Wills told the committee members that reforming the state’s judicial system will take time, but that reform legislation will be presented in the 2014 legislative session.

“It is going to have to be implemented incrementally and put into affect over time, but we can write the bill now,” Wills told committee members. “We’ve got to have a united front so we can move forward with this. We’ve been really good at low-crime rates, but we’ve had increasing incarcerations because of recidivism. We can improve on what we’re doing and I think we’ll have a fantastic legislative package in January for our constituents to take a look at.”

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, co-chair of the committee, said that “this information has taken almost a year to compile and we couldn’t have done this without the Pew Research Center’s help. We are not getting soft on crime with this. Public safety is our No. 1 concern here.”

Following the committee meeting, Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, told IdahoReporter.com that “This gives us a chance for significant improvements.” Noting that he works as an attorney, Rice stated that he is familiar with some of the proposed reforms, but not all of them. “I think this can lead us in a direction that produces better outcomes while saving the money of Idaho taxpayers.”

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, commented that “This certainly has promise.” However, he told IdahoReporter.com that “the most difficult part of justice is that the state needs to invest money up front, and if we are going to implement reforms that may require more money, and that can lead to a very difficult conversation.”

Lodge said that “we’ve got to concentrate our prison efforts with high-risk convicts, and we need to move away from incarcerating low-risk convicts.” She noted that when low-risk convicts are held in prison, at times unnecessarily, their dependents frequently end up reliant on social welfare programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, which burdens state government resources even further.

Wills told the committee to plan on meeting again shortly after the legislative session begins in January.

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