Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett told state lawmakers Monday that his county jail is being overrun with state prisoners including parole violators, and he blames the state’s justice reinvestment initiative.
But state officials said JRI, which the state adopted in 2014, actually didn’t change anything on when state inmates are released or when parolees land in jails.
Sandy Jones, executive director of the Commission for Pardons and Parole, said it’s a “common misperception” that the justice reinvestment initiative somehow requires early release of prison inmates.
“Nowhere in statute does it say that,” she said. “That was never a mandate of justice reinvestment.”
“The Parole Commission has always had complete discretion to make parole decisions,” Jones told the lawmakers. “That was true before JRI, it’s true today.”
Bartlett said he believes “one of the unintended consequences of JRI is that prisoners who should be in custody have been released on parole, where they’ve committed crimes at a higher rate than ever. Just look at the drastic increase in parolee bookings at the Ada County Jail since 2014.”
In 2014-15, there were 459 parolee bookings into the Ada County Jail, he said; in 2017-18, that figure was 658.
But nothing in Idaho’s justice reinvestment initiative calls for early release of prisoners. “That’s an important point, that JRI doesn’t mandate release of anybody,” said Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, the House Judiciary Committee chairman and co-chair of the joint Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee. “It’s still up to the parole board.”
Just as before JRI, the Parole Commission doesn’t consider releasing any Idaho inmate until the inmate has served his or her full fixed term as set by a judge, Jones said. After that, the commission weighs risk to the community in deciding whether to release an inmate on parole during their indeterminate time that follows their fixed term.
JRI gave the commission some tools to use evidence-based practices in its decisions and increased the amount of data available, Jones said, and that’s “been really good.” But, she said, “It hasn’t really changed the practice of parole.”
The assumption in adding those tools was that “people were not getting out in a timely manner,” she said. “I think that was true, but it wasn’t because of parole decisions. It was because we had a backed-up treatment system.”
With improvements in treatment programs inside prisons, inmates who were awaiting programming completed it, and the long waiting lists they faced back in 2015 were eliminated, Jones said. That did lead to more offenders being released on parole, but they still were being released under the same standards as before.
Bartlett’s was just the latest in a continuing chorus of criticism from law enforcement and prosecutors of the state’s justice reinvestment initiative, which is aimed at reserving prison cell space for the most dangerous criminals, while investing the savings from less incarceration into programs designed to reduce repeat offenses among lesser offenders. Ninety-eight percent of Idaho’s prison inmates eventually are released back into the community.
A key aspect of the justice reinvestment initiative, calling for shorter, 90- or 180-day sanctions for parole violators, was repealed in 2017 at the urging of law enforcement officers who said criminals were being let go too early. The state then expanded the Parole Commission so it could hear more cases; it has full discretion over who gets released and who gets sent back behind bars.
A week ago, two Boise police officers authored a guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman headed, “Justice Reinvestment Initiative has made our communities more dangerous.” The two wrote, “JRI is an ill-conceived and poorly administered program that created state policies leading to the early release of prisoners.”
Idaho, in cooperation with the Council of State Governments, first passed its justice reinvestment legislation in 2014. All three branches of state government — the Legislature, the executive branch and the courts — collaborated on the plan, which is aimed at halting what CSG identified as a “revolving door of recidivism” in Idaho’s criminal justice system.
Idaho has the highest incarceration rate of any of its surrounding states and the lowest crime rate.
“I know that everyone’s trying to find answers,” Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said with a sigh after Monday’s meeting. Lodge, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, co-chairs the oversight committee with Luker.
“I think we’re on the right track,” she said. “We just have to have the money to do it.”
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, had a strong reaction to Bartlett’s comments. Rice said Idaho passed JRI but hasn’t really implemented it — because it hasn’t sufficiently increased the number of probation and parole officers to supervise offenders who are out on parole or probation, or the amount of treatment available to released offenders in the community.
“JRI doesn’t make a difference if you don’t have those two substantive elements,” Rice declared. “It’s not the Department of Correction’s failure, it’s not our sheriffs’ failure, it’s not our prosecutors’ failure, it’s not our courts’ failure. It’s the failure to actually fund and implement those substantive parts of JRI, and until we do, we’re not going to get the results that we all wanted from Day 1.”
He added, “We haven’t done it, and then we go and tinker with the statute and pretend that we’ve done a solution. Statutes don’t solve problems, actually solutions solve problems.”
Bartlett said he agrees. He said he believes that the state needs to establish a “sanctions center” — a state-funded and -operated facility where parole violators can be sent, rather than going to the county jail. He said the county is open to possibly coordinating with the state as Ada works to expand its jail. “Whatever the right solution is, we’re willing to come to the table,” he said.
“The program is not set up for success,” Bartlett said. Pressed by lawmakers on his contention that parolees who land in jail never should have been released, he said, “They should never be released if the program is not established or put in place for them to be successful.”
“Ada County is flat out of room,” Bartlett told the lawmakers. “We don’t have one additional bed on any given day.” Inmates are sleeping on the floor at the overcrowded county jail, he said.
Bartlett said numbers show that state parole violators who’ve committed new crimes are staying in the Ada jail on average for three times as long as other jail inmates, “which is tying up the bed space.”
Jones told the committee that JRI didn’t change anything as far as when parole violators go to county jails. “Parolees if they violate have always been taken to the county jail,” she said. “That’s not a JRI thing. That’s always been the practice. Parolees go to the county jail ‘til their due process has been taken care of, and then they move out to the prison.”
Those with new crimes, of course, have to go through new trials first.
There’s actually been progress on parolees with technical violations having shorter jail stays, she said.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, told Jones, “I really appreciate that, because I … have been hearing this over and over again, and I’ve been trying to go back to the statistics and figure out what people are talking about. What you’ve clarified is we’re doing the same thing.”
The lawmakers on Monday also heard from prosecutors, a defense attorney, and a representative of Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police. Prosecutors said they don’t believe that anyone’s being unnecessarily imprisoned in Idaho.
“The judges are getting it right,” Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bandy, speaking for the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told the lawmakers. “The people who are in prison are the right people who should be in prison.”
Attorney Tom Arkoosh, speaking for the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told lawmakers that the state needs to look at providing both judges and prosecutors with more discretion by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking, which is defined as possessing certain amounts of specific drugs.
“The mandatory minimum statute was initially passed in 1992,” he said. “Evidently it’s not very effective, if drug trafficking continues to skyrocket.”
He also suggested making it a misdemeanor for a drug addict to possess a small amount of drugs, rather than a felony; passing a shoplifting law so shoplifters aren’t charged with felony burglary, as they often are now; and better funding public defense for indigent defendants.
“Ultimately, I believe it will save the state money,” he said.
At the close of the meeting, the senators and representatives heard some sobering news from state Corrections Director Henry Atencio.
“In just a matter of a month or so, we’re going to have 700 inmates out of state,” Atencio said. “I have 406 today out of state.”
“That’s staggering,” Wintrow said. “We have an immediate need.”
The Idaho Department of Correction has proposed a $500 million prison expansion, including a new 1,500-bed state prison. Given the ballooning inmate numbers, that big new prison is the department’s top priority, Atencio said.
Lawmakers are trying to determine whether the state should proceed with the proposed prison expansion, make other reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, or both.
“The bottom line is we probably need some new beds,” Luker said. “Do we need that many? That’s the question.”