More crime? More inmates? Problems hiring police? Blame growth

Inmates at the Ada County Jail sleep on cots and under tables because of the facility's chronic overcrowding. Sheriff Stephen Bartlett told county commissioners on June 11 that "for 13 straight months now, we've been over operational capacity, with no end in sight."
Inmates at the Ada County Jail sleep on cots and under tables because of the facility's chronic overcrowding. Sheriff Stephen Bartlett told county commissioners on June 11 that "for 13 straight months now, we've been over operational capacity, with no end in sight."

The Treasure Valley’s rapid growth means more than simply soaring construction cranes, new subdivisions and angry drivers sitting in traffic.

It also means more crime, more arrests, greater pressure on law enforcement agencies and chronically overcrowded jails.

Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett emphasized the burgeoning population in the Treasure Valley and in his jail when he went before the county commissioners to ask for 39 new employees in 2019 – hires that would boost his department’s budget by $4.7 million. The commission is working on the county’s 2019 budget this week.

As Ada County leaders deliberate, state and Canyon County officials confront similar problems. Canyon County needs a new, larger jail, but voters have turned down several bond requests. State prisons south of Boise are over capacity, and Idaho is considering building a $439 million prison just to keep up.

“Our county’s population has grown dramatically over the last seven years,” Bartlett told the commission on June 11, when he laid out his reasoning for a $72.7 million departmental budget. “More people living in the same amount of space increases the burden on our system and our resources.”

The jail, Idaho’s largest and most secure county jail, has borne the brunt of that burden, Bartlett said. He is not proposing to expand it or add a new jail — at least not now. For now, Bartlett hopes to curb overcrowding with other efforts to keep people out of jail, or from returning.

Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett says a $1 million grant awarded to his office will be used for additional staff working to ease overcrowding at the county jail. The money was awarded through the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challeng

Daily population keeps rising

But for 13 straight months, “we’ve been over operational capacity, with no end in sight," he said. " … This year all of our dorms have been well over our rated capacity nearly 100 percent of the time.”

Bartlett flashed photographs of inmates sleeping in cots on the crowded jail floor, curled under metal tables bolted to the concrete. In each of the jail’s dorms, he said, an average of 10 people sleep on the floor each night. On May 31, the jail reached its all-time high of 1,127 inmates.

The jail’s so-called rated capacity is 1,224 beds. Of those, 108 are designated for the work release program, bringing the main jail capacity down to 1,116.

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Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett says the county must either build a new jail or find ways to reduce its jail population. Darin Oswald

“Ideally, we need to be running below 85 percent of our rated capacity, meaning that our daily population would need to be below 949,” Bartlett told the commissioners. “When’s the last time we saw that, you may ask. Well, I can tell you, it’s been quite a while. Matter of fact, May 9, 2017, was the last time we saw a number under that, 945.”

In 2016, the average daily jail population was 919, according to sheriff's department statistics. In 2017, that grew to 1,000. Between January and March, the daily average was 1,081. Since then, department spokesman Patrick Orr said, "we’ve only had one day where we’ve been under 1,050."

Among the personnel Bartlett would like to add are eight booking nurses to evaluate and care for inmates, two deputies to provide security for the medical staff in the jail clinic, eight deputies to monitor the crowded dorms, and a deputy to oversee the 20 inmates who work in the jail kitchen each shift, helping prepare more 3,000 meals each day.

“Our jail staff,” he said, “is overworked, understaffed and overstressed.”

Boise, Meridian seek more cops, but hiring is troublesome

Other law enforcement agencies hope to beef up in the coming fiscal year, too. The Boise Police Department wants seven more officers in FY 2019. The Meridian Police Department is hiring 10 sworn law enforcement officers and wants to add four non-sworn officers in the coming year.

“We have adopted a patrol-allocation model that incorporates population, calls for service and roadways driven in our area,” said Meridian Chief Jeff Lavey. “When you calculate that right now, based upon December 2017 statistics, we needed nine additional police officers. That is because of growth.

“But I’m not asking for nine additional officers, because I haven’t filled the 10 positions I already have open,” he said. “Growth is the reason. ... The rest of the law enforcement agencies are having a hard time hiring, too, because of the low unemployment rate, which is also a factor of growth.”

Meridian’s population recently crested 100,000, and Lavey concedes that the number of crimes committed in his city has grown with the population. “More people,” he said in an interview, “more crime.”

The number of violent crimes – defined by the FBI as murder, robbery, rape and aggravated assault – is low, he said: 97 for 2017. In 2016, the number was 99, according to the Idaho State Police’s annual report, “2016 Crime in Idaho.” The 2017 statistics will be released July 1.

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Sheriff's deputies process newly arrested inmates in the intake area of the Ada County jail. Sheriff Stephen Bartlett is asking county commissioners for money next year to hire eight booking nurses to evaluate and care for inmates.

Prosecutor: Ada County gets 1,000 new residents per month

When Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts asked the county commissioners last week for more staff, she cited growth and soaring caseloads, particularly the number of felony cases her office handles. Bennett wants to add nine attorneys, legal assistants and other employees.

Bennetts told the commissioners that about 1,000 new residents pour into Ada County each month, “and this, of course, translates into increased law enforcement staffing levels in response to the increase in crime, which, then, of course, means an increase to the workloads for my office, from the investigation phase through the prosecution. … We’re seeing complexity in crimes. We’re seeing violent crimes. We’re seeing repeat offenders.”

Bennetts' office handles civil and criminal prosecutions for all jurisdictions throughout Ada County. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of felony cases filed by prosecutors rose 51 percent, she said, from 2,296 to 3,463. The projections for 2018 are even higher: 3,844 felony cases are expected to be filed.

In addition to four new deputy prosecutors and three new legal assistants, Bennetts also asked for an investigator and a staff memberto help support crime victims during the prosecution process.

Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett wants to add 37 employees in the coming fiscal year, mostly to help a jail staff that is "overworked, understaffed and overstressed." he told county commissioners. "This year, all of our dorms have been well over our rated capacity nearly 100 percent of the time." Some inmates sleep on cots shoved against walls. Courtesy of the Ada County Sheriff's Office

On Wednesday, Bennetts read parts of a letter that a robbery victim wrote to the prosecutor’s office to underscore the need for the new victim coordinator .

“Before the actual guilty verdict, I was having a very hard time sleeping and being out in public by myself,” the person wrote. “I am not one who is scared of guns, since I have been around them since I was a child. However, to have one pointed at you and have your life threatened takes someone’s fear to a whole other level.

“I have never been that scared in my entire life,” Bennetts read. “You changed my life for the better. This situation almost broke me but you all saved me.”

This story has been updated to correct the number of new staff members that Ada County Prosecutor Jan Bennetts has requested from county commissioners.