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Idaho’s inmate population has grown more than 800 percent since 1980, outpacing both population growth and crime rates. According to the ACLU of Idaho, more than 360,000 Idahoans – about one in five – have criminal convictions on their records.

Sadly, the Gem State is not alone. In recent years, the Idaho Legislature’s policy choices have contributed to the national trend that has established the United States as the leader in mass incarceration in the entire world, both in absolute numbers and per capita.

Mass incarceration has reached a crisis level that is damaging families, individual communities, particularly communities of color, and society as a whole. Yet, politicians in charge continue to spend more and more money on prisons without a shred of evidence that it reduces crime rates. Idaho’s ill-conceived and out-of-control spending on prisons is costing our taxpayers millions of dollars a year.

A course correction is long overdue. The Idaho Legislature has the chance to start now by passing smart policies proven to make a difference. Last month, the ACLU of Idaho released a roadmap for Idaho in its report “Blueprint for Smart Justice,” the culmination of a two-year, 50-state study conducted by the national organization, its state affiliates and the Urban Institute. The Legislature has the chance to pursue policies that will cut incarceration rates dramatically, reduce racial disparities, and make society safer, starting by investing in people rather than prisons. Double-digit budget recommendations, including Governor Brad Little’s call for a 12% increase in corrections spending this year, can become a thing of the past if legislators pursue policies proven to better deal with the drug addiction, mental illness and poverty that contributes to people ending up in prison.

“Tough on crime” policies are what spawned this crisis, not crime itself. Mandatory minimum sentencing, along with harsh sentences for minor drug offenses and other non-violent offenses, have put more than 12,800 Idahoans behind bars and another 16,000 on probation or parole.

The Idaho Legislature can begin to chart a more responsible corrections policy by passing the Fair Chance Employment Act, sponsored by Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb. This bill would remove barriers to employment for people with criminal records. The ability to find a job after jail or prison is directly linked to recidivism, especially for the 70% who are locked up for probation and parole violations.

For a majority of Idahoans on probation or parole , finding a job is key to staying out of prison, supporting their families and rebuilding their lives. Yet, it’s estimated that about half of all applicants who check the box that says they have a criminal record are summarily dismissed without an interview or a chance to explain the circumstances of their conviction.

The Fair Chance Employment Act prohibits employers from asking about criminal records until the applicant is given an interview or a conditional offer of employment. This benefits employers, who in a tight labor market need all the applicants they can get, and it protects them from potential lawsuits for unfair hiring practices. Nationally, 35 states, including Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Washington, and Nebraska, have adopted a ban-the-box or fair chance policy. It’s time for Idaho to catch up.

The bipartisan support for The Fair Chance Employment Act means it has a solid chance to pass during the 2020 Idaho Legislature. This bill alone will not solve the criminal justice crisis, but it is a good first step, and will go a long way in helping those with criminal records to rebuild their lives. Please contact your legislator directly to advocate for its swift passage.

Ruby Mendez-Mota is an advocacy fellow at ACLU of Idaho and the proud daughter of immigrant parents. 

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