BOISE — Idaho has more people in prison because of parole and probation violations than any other state in the country, a new study finds.
According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, in 2018, 5,298 Idahoans — or 62% of the state’s prison population at the time — were serving time in prison because they violated the terms of their probation or parole.
That’s more than any other state, according to the study. The second highest slot on the list is occupied by Arizona and Missouri, each with 54% of their prison population incarcerated because of probation or parole violations.
As of Friday, 9,042 people were in Idaho prison facilities, according to Jeff Ray, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Correction. The Council of State Governments Justice Center, in the report released last week, estimates the 5,298 people in Idaho prisons in 2018 who were there due to probation and parole violations cost the state about $111 million annually.
Parole and probation violations are broken down into two categories.
Some on probation and parole commit new crimes and are thus sentenced to prison because of those new crimes.
But some commit what are known as “technical violations” — violations of the terms of their probation or parole that would not otherwise be crimes, such as drinking alcohol or having social contact with a juvenile.
A recent high-profile example of this in Ada County was the case of Adam Paulson, the Eagle man who drove drunk in November 2017 and killed a 24-year-old woman crossing Eagle Road. A judge sentenced him to probation in January, but earlier this month his probation was revoked after the judge determined he had tampered with an ankle bracelet designed to measure his blood alcohol content.
Such an act isn’t a crime in and of itself, but it violated the conditions of his probation and is, therefore, a technical violation. Because of that, he will serve at least five years in prison, and perhaps as many as 15.
In 2017, the last year for which data was available, 28% of Idaho’s prison admissions, or 1,636, were due to technical violations, according to the study.
The study was new to Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt, but its overall findings were not. He’s often cited people who violate parole or probation as the largest piece of Idaho’s prison population.
“It’s good news, and it’s bad news,” Tewalt said. “The bad news is we have folks on supervision committing new crimes, and the good news is we can do something about it.”
This legislative session, Tewalt did not ask the Idaho Legislature for a $500 million prison expansion officials had discussed in 2018. Instead, he recommended lawmakers spend money on minimum-security and work-release beds, as well as improving supervision outside of prison settings, in the community. In February, the Idaho Legislature approved 17 new probation and parole positions — 10 officers and seven administrators — as well as increased funding for electronic monitors, such as ankle bracelets.
Tewalt said he’s hoping to continue to work with the Legislature to improve supervision in the community, to keep people out of prison.
“That’s where we have to go, because success or failure in this case means new crime or no crime,” he said.
Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the Prison Policy Initiative, said that rethinking how the state handles technical violations of parole or probation could be another option.
“To me, all of these statistics suggest that Idaho’s probation and parole systems are failing,” she wrote in an email to the Idaho Press. “Re-incarcerating people for technical violations is the most obvious injustice and waste of money.”
Tewalt said people in Idaho aren’t going back to prison for minor technical violations.
“People want to latch onto that and say, ‘They’re just technical violations. Why are they going back to prison?'” he said.
The people who return to prison because of technical violations had multiple chances to succeed, he said, and were still not successful.
To him, those who commit more crime are more concerning.
“It means we weren’t able to intervene before they created new victims and before they created new crimes,” he said.
In Idaho, 20% of people admitted to prison because they violated probation had committed a new crime, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. That’s higher than the national average, which is 12%. Similarly, 21% of people admitted to Idaho prisons who violated parole did so by committing a new crime. Once again, this is far more than the national average, which is 8%.
“But it’s also a sign of failure when so many people on supervision — particularly people on probation, who by definition committed low-level offenses in the first place — commit new crimes,” Bertram wrote. “The purpose of supervision should be to help people turn their lives around, by connecting them to things like stable housing, medical/mental health treatment and steady income.”
That’s why, moving forward, Tewalt wants to focus on getting probationers and parolees housing and transportation. In the past, he said, the conversation about corrections has focused mainly on prison beds, supervision and treatment. Those things are important, but he said without stable housing and good transportation, people will fail probation and parole, regardless of how many parole and probation officers there are.
In their section for additional notes on Idaho, the researchers who conducted the study wrote prison officials "report difficulty in tracking whether a supervision violation was due to technical violation of conditions or a new offense."
"Reports indicating whether a person committed a new offense are completed more often now than prior to 2016 but have not yet become standardized in all districts," according to the report. "Approximately 10 percent of probation violation admissions and 20 percent of parole violation admissions are missing such information."