Idaho’s prisons are overcrowded, and that’s costing us a lot of money. But it’s money that must be spent to protect the safety of every Idahoan. However, we’re also planning to invest in community programs to help keep former inmates out of prison. That can save us much more in the long run.

Recently, the budget for the Department of Correction and the Commission of Pardons and Parole was approved by the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. It’s bigger than last year. It still needs approval from the full House, full Senate and the governor, but that will likely happen. It’s not because it’s a bill we like to pay; it’s because it’s a bill we know we must pay. In the Gem State, we’re seeing a spike in population overall, and also in the number of people who need to be behind bars. That’s driving up our prison costs. Idaho is a very safe state, and one of the ways we keep it that way is by locking up criminals.

While we must keep up with the supply of prison beds, we can drive down the demand for those beds by helping former inmates from returning to a cell. On the recommendation of Gov. Brad Little, Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt has a great plan to accomplish that. It’s called “connection and intervention stations.” If approved, they will work as a safety net for probationers and parolees on supervision who might be close to a violation. They would provide services like drug testing, substance-abuse treatment and transitional housing around the state. That will cost us some money, but it’s a fraction of the overall budget, and can save us a lot more by keeping those people out of prison and reducing the demand for beds.

When we talk about the Department of Correction, I think it’s important to pay attention to the operative word. “Correction” doesn’t just mean punishment. “Correction” doesn’t just mean giving an inmate a cell for a few years. “Correction” means working to correct someone’s behavior so they might become a productive member of the community, instead of a drain on it. That’s what this plan to use community resources would be, investing in corrective action to give former inmates a better chance at helping the state instead of hurting it.

We need to house a lot of prisoners. Whether that’s in-state, out-of-state, done by building more facilities or using local jails, it’s a task that must be done. It’s also a short-term solution to our prison overcrowding. The long-term permanent solution is to reduce the number of inmates. We can do that with community intervention and a little bit of investment that will save us millions of dollars in prison costs down the line. That’s a major feature of the Correction budget, and why I support it fully.

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, is chairman of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee.

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