Jail bunks floor

The Ada County Jail uses bunks on the floor when beds are full.

The Idaho Sheriffs’ Association is calling on the Idaho Legislature to create an interim committee to explore the funding of “appropriate correctional facilities” in light of the number of state prisoners housed in county jails.

The call, announced Friday in a press release from the association, comes days after Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt told the Idaho Legislature about Gov. Brad Little’s plans to introduce a bill that would change the two-tiered system by which the department reimburses counties for holding state-sentenced inmates in county jails.

Currently, the department pays counties $55 per inmate per day for the first seven days a county jail holds a state prisoner, and $75 for every day after that. The legislation, Tewalt said, would change that to a flat $60 rate.

The members of the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association are “concerned” about the proposal, according to Friday’s release.

“The reasoning for the tiered system was to provide an incentive to the state to pick up their prisoners in a timely manner rather than using county jails as a de facto extension to Idaho’s state prison system,” the release reads. “The legislature agreed and passed the payment structure into law.”

The Idaho Sheriffs’ Association believes the proposed legislation would simply allow the department “to continue using jails to catch the overflow of inmates that should be in prison,” according to the release.

The Idaho prison system is broken, according to the release, “through no fault of IDOC.”

The release cites Idaho’s practice of sending prisoners out of state to two private facilities in Texas because of lack of bed space, and said the state needs to find a better solution for housing those sentenced to prison.

“The Idaho Sheriffs Association recommends that the Idaho legislature create an interim committee to explore the funding of appropriate correctional facilities,” according to the release. “Sending incarcerated Idahoans out of state is a loser for the inmate, the inmate’s families and sends millions of Idaho taxpayer dollars to other states.”

The move is the latest act in an ongoing disagreement between the Idaho Department of Correction and county sheriffs’ offices.

Because of a dire lack of beds in Idaho’s prisons, people sentenced to prison don’t always go to a prison facility directly after they are sentenced. The department’s facilities are so full that, since 2018, it has had to pay a private company to house inmates in Texas; on Friday, there were 651 Idaho prisoners at Eagle Pass Correctional Facility, southwest of San Antonio.

As a result of that lack of space, some state-sentenced inmates are kept in county jails, sometimes for weeks after their sentencing. In 2019, the average length of stay in the Ada County Jail after a person had been sentenced to prison, and who had no other holds preventing them from leaving, was 11 days, according to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office. People who violate parole for technical reasons while supervised by state correctional officers, but who don’t commit any new crime, are also housed in county jails.

For instance, on Tuesday, there were 90 inmates in the Ada County Jail who had already been sentenced to state prisons, and 67 people who had violated their parole for technical reasons, but had committed no new crime. Of the 90 people sentenced to prison, 72 had been in the Ada County Jail for more than seven days and 18 had been there for less than seven days.

Currently, the department reimburses the counties for housing those sentenced to prison at a rate of $55 per day for the first seven days, and then $75 per day after that. Both of those numbers are still lower than the average daily cost of housing a person in jail, which is $99 per day, according to a Friday news release from the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association.

Tewalt, IDOC’s director, said Tuesday in his budget presentation to the Idaho Legislature that Gov. Little will soon propose legislation to do away with the tiered-payment system the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association lobbied for in 2018 — and to instead set the rate of reimbursement at $60 per day. Tewalt told the Idaho Press last week the legislation would require that rate to increase to $65 by fiscal year 2022.

Tewalt also said the proposed legislation will address sections of Idaho’s code at issue in an ongoing lawsuit between Ada County and IDOC.

In November, the county’s civil prosecutors moved to hold Tewalt in contempt of court, citing a 1991 court ruling which ordered the department to remove state-sentenced prisoners from the Ada County jail within seven days of notification of their sentencing, and from the Kootenai County Jail within 14 days of notification of their sentencing.

Ada County’s argument hinged on the fact that state-sentenced prisoners routinely remained in the Ada County Jail for longer than seven days — and the jail had, in fact, failed Idaho Sheriffs’ Association audits in 2018 and 2019 because of overcrowding.

Tewalt told the Idaho Press the governor’s legislation “clarifies the sections of code that underpin that (court) decision … to provide more discretion on when we’re obligated to go pick (inmates) up.”

He argued that the court decision forces the department to prioritize Ada and Kootenai counties, which he said was unfair to other counties with crowded jails.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: The court order required the department to remove inmates from the Kootenai County Jail within 14 days of notification of their sentencing. Previous versions of the story contained an inaccurate number of days.

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