It is no mystery to any one that Idaho’s prisons are bursting at the seams. State Prisoners are also backing up in to County Jails pushing much of the cost burdens on to local County Budgets. In addition hundreds of inmates have been sent out of state to Karnes, Texas. And in response to the overcrowding, the Idaho State Board of Corrections proposed on Monday a $500 million prison expansion to add an additional 2400 beds. This new facility would also cost another $28 million a year to operate.
So why are Idaho’s prisons so full? Has there been a surge in crime? Is this a problem other states are having right now? Do we need to build more prisons?
The elephant in the room is the fact that Idaho, compared to its crime rate, has the highest incarceration rate in the Nation.
Many have dismissed these questions simply by stating that Idaho’s increase in prison population is simply due to an increase in the overall State population. And that the only logical solution is to build more prisons. And that is exactly what Henry Atencio, Director of the Idaho Department of Corrections is requesting – more money.
“Our population is just skyrocketing right now,” said Atencio.
“We don’t have the option to do nothing,” said board Chairwoman Debbie Field. “We have to do something. That’s our only option.”
Is this the only option to solving Idaho’s overcrowding is building more prisons?
Unfortunately, what many Idaho lawmakers and media outlets are purposely failing to mention in this discussion is that there is massive elephant in the room that keeps getting larger. The elephant in the room is the fact that Idaho, compared to its crime rate, has the highest incarceration rate in the Nation.
We naturally assume that more crime means more criminals, which should lead to more convictions and more convicts. However, that is not true in Idaho. When we look at the incarceration rate across the nation, states like Louisiana, Oklahoma and Alabama come up to the top of the list with the highest incarcerations per 100,000 adults. Idaho is way down to number 20. And when you compare those states’ crime rate to their incarceration rate, it all makes sense. Those states have more crime, which leads to more incarcerations. But when you compare Idaho’s incarceration rate to its crime rate, the numbers don’t add up. And when we rank states accordingly, Idaho now comes in 3rd in the nation behind Mississippi and Kentucky. And when you add the number of people on parole, now Idaho comes in second in the nation just behind Georgia.
But Georgia has a much different parole system from the rest of the nation. Georgia contracts out its parole officers to private firms and routinely places people on parole when there is an unpaid balance on any fine- even if the payments are current and even if it for an infraction or misdemeanor. This can lead to people being placed on parole in more than one county simultaneously. So in Georgia, if you have traffic tickets in two different counties that you are making payments on, each county reports these separately to the State, skewing their numbers. And so with this skewed data Georgia’s parole numbers are almost 4 times the national average. However when you remove the duplicate numbers and remove those simply paying off traffic tickets and misdemeanor fines from Georgia’s parole numbers, their overall parolees easily falls by atleast 30%, putting Idaho easily in the number one spot.
And so which of the 50 states has the highest number of its own citizens in prison or on Felony parole for the least amount of crime? It is Idaho.
But Idaho hasn’t always been like this. From 1991 to 2015 Idaho’s prison population has exploded up 1429%. But violent crime has only increased 2.89% during the same period. Since the 1990’s, Idaho began locking up more people, for longer sentences until we finally got to where we are now – all of our prisons bursting at the seams.
Here are the major contributors to this incarceration disaster.
1. Idaho has no sentence reduction program. Many studies have shown the benefits of early release programs for nonviolent offenders that haven’t resulted in any increase in crime. Because of that, 43 out of 50 of States in our nation have some kind of sentence reduction program through either good time, earned time or other state sentence reduction program. In most all of these 43 states, the time reduction is calculated either automatically or is heavily regulated requiring the parole boards to specifically explain if why if they deviate from the program’s reduction time. Idaho on the other hand has no sentence reduction program of any kind for either good behavior, completion of re-entry programs, vocational training, or work completed while incarcerated and instead gives its parole board complete discretion. The only exception is through a misleading Meritorious conduct reduction law  requiring an inmate to perform “an extraordinary act of heroism at the risk of his own live or for outstanding service to the state of Idaho which results in the saving of lives.” This law is also known as Idaho’s “Prison Snitch Law” and is primarily used as an interrogation aid to help prison guards acquire information from inmates. However quite often the information received from prison snitches is highly unreliable as inmates have been known to say anything that will get them out of prison.
2. Idaho heavily relies upon its prison system as an alternate to substance abuse treatment. Non-violent offenders in Idaho statistically spend over twice as long in prison as the national average. And the majority of these non-violent offenders are incarcerated for possession or misuse of a controlled substance. A 2018 study by the Pew Charitable Trust entitled “More Imprisonment Does Not Reduce State Drug Problems” shows that there is little to no connection between high prison terms and lowered drug use. A great example of that is Idaho who ranks 45th in the nation for illicit drug use but ranks 4th in the Nation for imprisonment of those drug users. Compare that to New Jersey that ranks slightly ahead Idaho at 42nd in the Nation for drug use, but 45th in the Nation for imprisonment. The reason for this policy of Imprisonment over treatment is confusing considering it costs $22,000 per year to incarcerate while drug treatment programs cost about half.
3. Idaho statistically does not release anyone at their minimum sentencing. Most all defendants assume, and were told by their Public Defense attorney, that if they have no disciplinary actions, complete their classes and in prison treatment programs, they can be released at their minimum sentence. However this rarely ever happens. Instead the Pardons and Parole board targets 150% of the minimum sentence and regularly exceeds it regardless of the inmates conduct and program completion.
4. Idaho’s public defense system is completely inadequate and insufficient. Even though numerous public officials from State and Federal levels of governments acknowledged abundant deficiencies in the Public Defense system, no real changes have been made to rectify the problems and no one has been made accountable. Defendants regularly take Plea agreements that are not in their best interest and the cases that do go to trial, their attorneys statistically arrive completely unprepared . And despite these deficiencies Idaho makes it very hard for out of State attorneys to practice in Idaho.
Despite what our leaders say, the solution is very simple and it won’t cost the taxpayers one penny. First, release our current nonviolent offenders, who have had no disciplinary actions, when the judge said they could be released at sentencing. Second, establish mandatory early release programs for nonviolent offenders like the other 43 states in the Union. Third, loosen the Reciprocity rules and allow outside attorneys to practice in the state of Idaho. Fourth, use the savings from incarceration and instead spend that money on drug treatment. And finally, come election day, it is time to drain our swamp and elect new public officials who can come up with real solutions to Idaho’s problems.