KUNA — KUNA - Sitting in a locked classroom among fellow inmates, Billy Thomas wore a dark-green uniform - the same uniform he wears every day at the Correctional Alternative Placement Program.
Thomas is serving a rider program sentence for a felony domestic battery conviction in Bonneville County. And the Arco man said he's learning how to stay on a healthier, more positive path once he's on the outside.
"This rider is the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Thomas said. "They teach you ways (to cope) when you fall off track."
Warden Brian Finn said that's what the program is all about - giving inmates the tools they need to establish and maintain productive lives once they leave the facility.
"Re-entry into the community has worked really well," Finn said.
About 41 percent of rider program graduates return to prison within three years of their release, according to the Idaho Department of Correction. That's actually 6 percent higher than the rate for regular ex-cons.
But because rider programs, which offer intensive counseling and education to lower-risk inmates, are for a shorter duration than a standard prison sentence, taxpayers stand to save thousands of dollars for every rider success.
Alternative sentencing programs meet many of the same needs as traditional incarceration, Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor said, while costing less and giving offenders another chance at being productive members of society.
"I believe it provides accountability, necessary treatment, cognizant of state and county resources, all the while assessing whether the individual should be reintegrated into society," Taylor said.
Rather than going straight to a maximum-security prison, rider inmates serve 90 to 270 days at a minimum-security facility. If they satisfy the rider requirements - about 96 percent do - a sentencing judge has two options: placing them on probation, or ordering them to serve the rest of their sentences in a traditional prison setting.
Only about 13 percent must complete their prison sentences.
80 PERCENT RULE
Seventh District Administrative Judge Jon Shindurling is a proponent of rider programs. As long as more than 80 percent of inmates are successful, he said, the program is worth it.
"There will always be some who are sociopathic or antisocial who just won't respond to authority," Shindurling said. "The rider program is good at sorting those out, and if they don't make it (through the program), they usually deserve to not make it."
Rider inmates receive more intensive drug and alcohol treatment, education and counseling than regular prison inmates.
Rider inmate Andrew Berggren of Idaho Falls said the program is giving him the tools he'll need to avoid abusing alcohol once he's released.
"I'm 23 years old and I have three DUIs," Berggren said. "All I've known is alcohol. And I don't want it that way."
Berggren said he feels safer in the rider program than he ever did in other correctional facilities.
"I'd never even seen dope until I went to county jail," he said.
Inmate Jeremy Fisher said the drug and alcohol treatment is helping change his life, too.
Fisher, 41, said he started using drugs when he was 13. Until he got here, Fisher said he thought his drug use was a victimless crime. Through his rider treatment, the father of five said he's learned that there are major victims of his drug abuse: his family.
Fisher said he's spent about 13 years - more than half of his adult life - behind bars. All of it was due to drugs. Most recently, he was convicted of possession of methamphetamine in Bonner County. This is his last chance before a prison sentence.
"This program is more than just locking us up," Fisher said. "It's a good thing."
TRYING TO COPE
Thomas is in the rider program for a second time.
"I struggle with denial, and they help you to learn to correctly deal with your emotions," Thomas said. "The staff really takes you in and they are there for you, even if it's a shoulder to cry on."
Not all inmates sentenced to riders are successful in the long run.
Keith Bizauskas, 51, of Idaho Falls, is a former rider inmate who couldn't stay on the right path.
He served a rider program in 2005 for possession of a controlled substance. He also graduated from Wood Court - a specialty court for felons with substance abuse and mental health problems - in December 2011.
Bizauskas was sentenced last month to serve 15 to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to three sex crimes, two of which involved a 10-year-old girl.
Fortunately, cases such as his are the exception, officials say.
Many Correctional Alternative Placement Program inmates interviewed by the Post Register said they see the program as a way out of the criminal life.
Inmate Richard Torrez, 25, was incarcerated for an Ada County conviction of delivery of a controlled substance and possession with the intent to deliver.
"When you're here, you can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel to (another life)," Torrez said.
Angie Norton, deputy warden of programs at the facility, said there's more to the rider program than holding inmates accountable for their actions.
"We're here to help them help themselves," she said.