Idaho is one of just three states that provides its prison inmates virtually no way to earn time off for good behavior behind bars, and its “compassionate release” program for terminally ill inmates is among the nation’s most restrictive.
Also, national research is consistently showing that more incarceration doesn’t reduce crime, and in some cases, can actually worsen crime.
Those were among the research findings presented to a legislative panel Monday that’s looking for answers to the state’s soaring prison population. Idaho has the highest incarceration rate of any of its surrounding states, but the lowest rate of violent crime. The state is currently considering a $500 million prison expansion.
When lawmakers asked legislative budget analyst Jared Hoskins what struck him most about the research, he noted the “incarceration paradox,” saying, “I think it goes against what many of us intuitively feel,” that locking up criminals must reduce crime.
Lawmakers reviewed a report from the Vera Institute of Justice titled, “The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer.” It found that research shows that since 2000, higher incarceration rates haven’t been associated with reductions in crime. That’s because as incarceration rates increased ever higher, further increases meant imprisoning more lower-level offenders. That can lead to increased crime when the low-level offenders learn criminal habits behind bars and are removed from employment and family ties, and also can have community-wide effects when incarceration is concentrated in certain communities.
Senate Judiciary Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said she attended a National Conference of State Legislatures session last week and “this very point was brought up, that incarceration is not making us safer.”
House Judiciary Chair Lynn Luker, R-Boise said, “The paradox is probably the core of what we’re trying to look at here. We certainly want to keep our streets safe, but we want to do it in a cost-effective and helpful way. I think that probably frames a lot of what our review should entail.”
The only way an Idaho prison inmate can earn time off his sentence is through an obscure provision that knocks up to 15 days a month off the sentence for an “extraordinary act of heroism at the risk of his own life or for outstanding service to the state of Idaho which results in the saving of lives,” or prevention of an escape or major property loss during a prison riot.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever used that,” said Idaho state prisons Director Henry Atencio, who’s been with the state prison system since to 1991. “Not to my knowledge.”
Idaho eliminated so-called “good time” — in which inmates who followed rules automatically saw their sentence reduced by specified amounts — in 1986 when it established its current indeterminate sentencing system. Under the system, each sentence includes a fixed term and an additional indeterminate term, during which the inmate may or may not be released on parole.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 40 states now offer “earned time,” which is defined as a credit earned for participation in or completion of productive activities in prison, from education and treatment to work and vocational training. That includes 22 states that, like Idaho, have indeterminate sentencing.
Lawmakers also learned Monday that while many states have “compassionate release” programs to release terminally ill, elderly or dying inmates, Idaho’s program is so limited that it applies only to about 20 inmates a year who are in end-of-life situations. Usually, they don’t go home, said state Parole Commission Executive Director Sandy Jones; instead, they typically go to a nursing facility.
Lodge said she’d also like to see the panel address compassionate release and earned time for inmates, as an incentive for rehabilitation. The vast majority of Idaho prison inmates — 98 percent, according to the state Department of Correction — eventually are released back into the community.
The Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee also heard presentations Monday on preventive programs for at-risk kids in Idaho schools, and on Idaho Department of Health and Welfare mental health services for offenders on felony probation or parole.
Also on Monday, the Idaho Prosecutors Association provided a rebuttal to earlier reports from the state Department of Correction. The correction department said 1,245 state prisoners are behind bars for drug crimes alone, nearly half for simple possession, with more than half on their first offense and a quarter on their second.
However, the prosecutors association found that of those 1,245 inmates, 742 had prior felony offenses, and 258 were charged with drug trafficking or possession with intent to deliver, representative Holly Koole Rebholtz said.
“So we took those off the top of the list because those are dealers,” she said, leaving just 245. Among that group, she said, prosecutors are working to pin down the exact circumstances; so far they’ve determined that 75 actually did have prior criminal records.
“These individuals have had multiple opportunities at rehabilitation,” Rebholtz said. “Telling the community and our people that our prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders is not accurate.”
Lawmakers noted that they’re most concerned about finding solutions. “Really what we’re talking about here is the people that are in the system, and what we do with them from there,” said Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa. He asked Rebholtz if she’s seen “common themes” where the system breaks down and people reoffend.
“Sadly, individuals are choosing to commit new felony crimes,” she responded.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she’d like the panel to hear from defense attorneys as well. She also asked Rebholtz to include in the prosecutors’ review inmates who received mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking based solely on the amount of drugs they possessed; that Idaho law doesn’t require any intent to sell, just possession.
After the meeting, Lodge said, “I can see if you’re given chance after chance and there’s nothing we can do. But my whole thing is the length of sentences. They’ve got to understand there’s going to be a punishment for what they’ve done. Are we doing the right punishment? We have all this research that says that incarceration is not making our communities safer.
“That’s what we need to do, is make our communities safer,” she said.
The panel will develop recommendations to go to the Legislature in January to address the problem. Luker said he believes those recommendations will need to focus on reclassification of laws and appropriate sentencing; increasing probation and parole funding to “help those that are released stay on the right path”; improving inmate re-entry and mental health and drug treatment; and “the prison expansion and/or the repurposing of the facilities that we have.”