Over the last 35 years, Idaho’s imprisonment rate increased five-fold, making it the state with the 13th highest incarceration rate in the nation and outpacing all six neighboring states, according to a new report from the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. In 2016, Idaho had the lowest violent-crime rate but the highest incarceration rate, compared to Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, according to the Idaho Department of Correction.
Fifty percent of the increase in incarceration rates came from newly sentenced individuals on non-violent drug offenses, according to the Idaho Department of Correction.
The report by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy states that policymakers have increased funding for prisons at a faster rate than funding for education, with prison spending going up 204 percent between 1992 and 2017, after adjusting for inflation. State spending on higher education rose by 26 percent and K-12 spending rose 87 percent during that same time.
“Idaho prison costs take up an ever-larger share of state resources,” said Alejandra Cerna Rios, policy director at the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. “Many other states have shown that taking a hard look at operating prisons and criminal-justice systems more efficiently results in dollars freed up for investments in schools, roads and health care, while maintaining low crime rates.”
In January 2014, the Council of State Governments Justice Center—CSG Justice Center—released a report identifying three challenges the Idaho Department of Correction was facing and ways that it could be improved. This report led to the Justice Reinvestment Act, which was passed in March 2014.
The act was intended to focus on those three challenges:
l A revolving door—the state’s supervision and diversion programs were not reducing recidivism.
l Inefficient use of prison space—the majority of the prison population comprised people whose community supervision was revoked, people sentenced to a retained jurisdiction sentence and people convicted of a non-violent crime who were eligible for parole but had not yet been released.
l Insufficient oversight—Idaho lacked a system to track outcomes, measure quality and assure reliability of recidivism-reduction strategies, so policymakers were unsure whether their investments were yielding intended outcomes.
Since July 2014, the Idaho Department of Correction said, it has saved $21 million in potential costs from a reduction in prison beds being used, according to an Impact on the State report from February presented to the legislative committee in charge of overseeing the impacts of the Justice Reinvestment Act.
“A dip in the prison population immediately following this legislation saved an initial $21 million and temporarily staved off construction of new facilities,” states the report from the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. “Nevertheless, Idaho is again facing many of the same challenges despite a declining crime rate.”
Prisons and jails are overcrowded with inmates, with several counties signing contracts with companies that specialize in creating alternative housing units for detainees, including Canyon County and Bannock County. At the same time, hundreds of prisoners are being sent to private prisons in Texas, as state legislatures consider a $500 million new prison facility—roughly twice the current corrections budget—targeted at providing the 2,400 additional prison beds that are forecasted to be needed in Idaho by 2022.
The public information officer for the Idaho Department of Correction, Jeffrey F. Ray, said in an email that the department had nothing to add to what was in the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy’s report and directed anyone looking for more information to visit the department’s website for research and statistics.
In an interview on Tuesday, Cerna Rios said that her goal is to fund prisons without unintended consequences to other parts of the state budget. The report states that Idaho is again facing many of the same challenges that it was prior to 2014, despite a decline in crime rates. Cerna Rios suggested the state take a “hard look” at alternative ways of handling the increasingly costly situation.