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Unlikely allies asking lawmakers to consider a new model for prison reform

Unlikely allies asking lawmakers to consider a new model for prison reform

Dustin Hurst
January 23, 2014
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January 23, 2014
[post_thumbnail]Marc Levin, policy director for Texas-based think tank Right on Crime, says Idaho lawmakers need to change their approach to drug offenses, for example, or face continually rising prison costs.

Faced with the daunting prospect of finding hundreds of millions of dollars to fund accommodations for the state’s growing prison population, Idaho lawmakers are searching for options.

Enter the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) and Right on Crime (ROC), a Texas-based public policy think tank.

With lawmakers busily munching on turkey sandwiches and green salads at a downtown Boise eatery, the trio delivered to lawmakers some possible answers for lawmakers to consider.

Marc Levin, an attorney and policy director for ROC, told the lawmakers that reform of Idaho’s penal system is in order and that searching out evidence-based results should stand as the first order of business.

Too long, Levin preached, the American public and decision-makers in government have judged the penal system on the number of inmates housed in expensive prison facilities. Instead, Levin said, policymakers should base their opinions on results and recidivism rates.

“It’s a matter of being smart about it and making sure the sentence fits the crime,” Levin said.

ROC’s approach focuses on proper treatment for drug offenses, eliminating duplicative state laws, giving probation officers more power and authority to punish minor offenses and spending more on treatment options and less on incarceration.

ROC also advocates for either lessening certain probation terms or allowing nonviolent offenders to earn their way off the punishment through good behavior.

How lawmakers handle reform could play a huge role in state budgets going forward.

A report released earlier this year by the Council of State Governments recommended Idaho spend $33 million on a variety of penal initiatives, which would fund more probation and parole office and expand community-based treatment options. Following those recommendations would save Idaho $288 million through the next five years, according to the report.

The report also said the new spending would help keep down Idaho’s prison numbers, which are expected to grow by more than 1,000 inmates by 2019. The Gem State already boasts the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, despite also having one of the lowest crime rates among the states.

In 2010, Idaho spent just more than $52 per day to house each inmate.

But, Levin told IdahoReporter.com, prison and sentencing reform serves a greater purpose than simply saving taxpayer cash. The movement also helps bring people back to productivity.

“To the extent they’re (parolees and probationers) successful, we’re all safer,” Levin said.

For their parts, IFF President Wayne Hoffman and ACLU Director Monica Hopkins pledged more of the unusual friendship in the days and weeks to come as the legislative session continues in Boise. The two said that they enjoy working with “uncommon allies” like the ACLU and IFF when the groups can find common ground.

The presentation earned praise from state Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who said Levin “hit the nail on the head” on prison and sentencing reform.

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