BOISE — Almost two years after the Ada County Sheriff’s Office received a $1 million grant to reduce the county’s jail population, the reduction has not been as significant as officials hoped.
In October 2017, the county received the grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which works for criminal justice reform. The goal was to reduce the population in the Ada County Jail by 15-19%,
But the jail population has dropped by just 2% since October 2017, and 6% since early 2018, the sheriff’s said in a Sept. 15 blog post.
The post outlines the steps county officials have taken to reduce the jail population, and also details some of the reasons that population has been difficult to reduce.
IDOC INMATES IN COUNTY JAIL
On Friday, 25% of the inmates in the Ada County Jail were technically in the custody of the Idaho Department of Correction. There were 74 inmates who had been sentenced and were awaiting transfer to a state facility; and another 184 had violated their parole. The number of inmates the jail has housed for the Idaho Department of Correction has increased over time, as the state’s own facilities have filled up. In 2015, for example, only 14% of the jail’s population consisted of state inmates.
“If the IDOC were able to place all their inmates in IDOC facilities, we would have met our 15% reduction goal with no problem,” the sheriff’s office post reads. “Instead, we have more inmates than ever. While we’ve had discussions with IDOC officials on ways to relieve this burden on Ada County, any fix on their end is a long way off, as they don’t have any empty beds.”
The problem isn’t unique to Idaho. According to a Vera Institute of Justice report dated June 2017, eight in 10 jails across the country were holding inmates for other authorities; nationwide, 22% of jail inmates were being held for other agencies. The report used data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2013 Census of Jails. In that year, according to the data, 27% of the Ada County Jail’s population was being housed for other authorities. Of the 2,584 jails included in that census, the Ada County Jail ranked 752 in terms of how many inmates the facility held for other authorities in that year. According to the data, in that year, 16% of the Canyon County Jail’s population was held for other authorities.
“Aside from special contracts that allow IDOC to house inmates in surplus beds in Jefferson County and Bonneville County, the department does not decide which jails house IDOC inmates,” Jeff Ray, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Correction, wrote in an email. “The IDOC inmates referenced in the ACSO blog post are in the Ada County jail because they committed a crime in Ada County or violated the terms of their release on probation or parole.”
They are, however, still in the custody of the department — there just isn’t any bed space for them. If a parolee or probationer is booked into the Ada County Jail for a parole or probation violation, IDOC pays the cost of their incarceration, Ray confirmed. If they commit a new crime, however, the county foots the bill.
The issue of funding for state prisons will come up in the 2020 legislative session. Ray said that in January, IDOC will ask lawmakers to “expand the department’s bed capacity and to fund programs that would help more offenders succeed on probation and parole,” as a way to fix the overabundance of IDOC inmates in county jails.
Earlier this year, IDOC Director Josh Tewalt rolled out a plan for a new type of facility, meant as a new tool for probation and parole officers. Called “community connection centers,” they would provide a place for a probationer or a parolee to stay if they run into problems, such as a relapse on drugs or the loss of a job or home. They wouldn’t be in prison or jail, and Ray wrote the department believes that might help alleviate the pressure on county jails in multiple ways. Officials believe they would help those on supervision be successful, and that would lead to less crime — which in turn would lead to fewer jail bookings.
“Second, having a residential component to these centers for appropriate violators means prison beds can be made available to receive recently sentenced inmates from county jails,” Ray wrote.
GETTING PEOPLE OUT OF JAIL
One strategy Ada County implemented involved getting those charged with certain, minor offenses out of jail sooner — or keeping them out of jail completely. Through that program, people charged with certain low-level and nonviolent traffic misdemeanors, such as driving without a license or without insurance, were released by Ada County on their own recognizance instead of being booked into the jail. That meant they didn’t serve any jail time at all, they simply agreed to appear in court when they needed to. All told, according to the sheriff’s office post, it meant 65 people avoided jail time completely — fewer than what officials had hoped for. The problem was many people arrested on suspicion of the relevant charges were also arrested on suspicion of more serious crimes.
County officials also tried working from the opposite direction, by conducting what were dubbed “jail sweeps.” A team of prosecutors, public defenders, and jail staff members identified people who had been charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, and were in jail simply because they couldn’t pay bond. Those cases were then fast-tracked, so those people could leave jail as soon as possible, according to the blog.
“Since 2016, they’ve found and then expedited the release of 71 inmates, saving a total of 1,804 jail days if those inmates would have been left in custody – 1,804 days Ada County taxpayers didn’t have to pay for,” the blog post reads.
As of January, the average daily cost to hold a person in the Ada County Jail is $88.61.
Arrests in Ada County are down in general in the last few years, according to the sheriff’s office. In 2015, 15,663 people were booked into the Ada County Jail. That number dropped to 14,884 in 2018. The problem was the length of stay had increased. In 2015, a person, on average, stayed in the jail 38 days. In 2018, they stayed in jail for 45 days.
The sheriff’s office attributes that to the crushing weight of increased caseload in the 4th Judicial District.
The Ada County Prosecutor’s Office secures probable cause for a person’s arrest differently than some other Idaho counties. In many other counties, when police officers make an arrest without a warrant — for drug possession during a traffic stop, for example — the officer writes a document, called an affidavit of probable cause, explaining why they arrested the person. A judge then reviews that document, and determines if probable cause exists for the person’s arrest, and thus whether they should remain in jail.
In Ada County, however, prosecutors receive the police reports, look at them, and then prosecutors represent the information to a judge, arguing for probable cause for the person’s arrest, Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Scott Bandy said.
The reason for that, he said, is because sometimes officers might not be as well-versed in the nuances of the law, and might not lay out the probable cause for all possible charges. Prosecutors might catch that probable cause exists for different charges, though, and so they handle that process themselves, to ensure people who could be a threat aren’t in the community.
“There isn’t a concern about that contributing to jail overcrowding,” Bethany Calley, spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office, wrote in an email. “The process may add or change charges, however, the person was already in jail for at least one probable cause count.”
FAILURE TO APPEAR
Sheriff’s office officials also wanted to cut down on the number of arrests made because a person fails to appear in court. To do that, in August 2018 they rolled out a text-notification system designed to remind people of their court dates. It wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped, according to the post, but it did have some effect.
There have been 53,974 relevant court hearings since the program’s introduction, and people signed up to receive notification about 7,981, or 14.8%, of them. Of those, 528 still didn’t appear in court when they should have. That means of those who signed up, 6.6% didn’t show up. Of those who did not sign up to receive the service, however, 8% did not show up for their court dates.
“What that means is for those people who signed up for service and used it had a 17% reduction in failure to appear,” according to the post.
Ada County’s criminal justice system used some of the grant money to hire seven new employees, including:
- A court clerk to run the text notification system
- A new case manager for the public defender’s office
- Three pretrial services employees
- A data analyst
- A program manager
Orr said the county hopes the grant will continue to fund the salaries of those seven employees through the next fiscal year.
County officials are still considering other ideas. Orr said the grant helped fund the development of a new tool designed to assess the risk a person poses before trial. That system has been in place since February, and a newer version of it is scheduled to roll out next month.
Officials have also considered a “failure to appear” court, designed specifically to address cases in which people are charged with failing to appear. They’ve also considered ways to increase transportation options for people struggling to get to court. Those ideas aren’t concrete right now, but the group in charge of implementing new ideas is continuing to meet, and will likely do so through the next year, Orr said.
The goal, as he put it, is to keep improving.