Idaho’s jails are overstuffed. Can Ada County offer answers?

Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett says a $1 million grant awarded to the county last fall will be used to add additional staff to find ways to ease overcrowding at the county jail. The money was awarded through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.
Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett says a $1 million grant awarded to the county last fall will be used to add additional staff to find ways to ease overcrowding at the county jail. The money was awarded through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

Ada County’s newly awarded funding to find ways to reduce its jail population comes amid an urgent need across Idaho to either build more jails or find alternative ways to supervise people charged or convicted of crimes.

Jails in counties like Twin Falls, Gooding and Canyon are bursting at the seams, nearly surpassing their maximum capacities and leaving sheriffs searching for a fix.

The Ada County Sheriff's Office announced this week that the county received a $1 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a nationwide campaign for criminal justice reform. Split over two years, it will pay for eight new employees who will help the county test ways to keep low-level criminal offenders from getting stuck in jail.

The effort includes an Idaho Supreme Court-sanctioned pilot project allowing people charged with driving without privileges or failing to have insurance to be released without having to post a cash bond. Officials also want to reduce the number of people who miss their court dates through a notification system that Sheriff Steve Bartlett compared to getting reminders about a dental appointment.

The county’s plan originally included more money to create a behavioral health crisis center. But the state of Idaho will open such a center near the jail in December; county officials hope it will help drop unnecessary jail stays.

Officials hope Ada County’s efforts could lead to new statewide policies for all jails. Sheriffs in other Southern Idaho counties say they are open to any idea that could reduce inmate populations and control their growth.

The MacArthur Foundation announced a total $11.3 million for Ada and seven other counties across the U.S. to pursue advancements in criminal justice reform. The foundation reported that on average, about 730,000 people are incarcerated daily in more than 3,000 local jails nationwide.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, pretrial incarceration rates in America’s rural counties increased over the last decade, but declined in urban counties. In 2013, an average 220 people per 100,000 Americans ages 15-64 were in jail at any point awaiting trial. Ada County’s rate was right at the average, with 223 per 100,000.

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


Inmate growth over the last year has stretched this jail to a point where an expansion is the only real solution, said Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Capt. Doug Hughes.

On Thursday morning, the Twin Falls County jail held 243 inmates; its maximum capacity is 224 beds. The extra inmates were sleeping on so-called “boats” on the floor, which are padded temporary beds. Another 15 Twin Falls inmates were being housed in other counties.

Hughes said the county has worked with judges to release low-risk people on their own recognizance — similar to what Ada County is trying — but the population continues to grow.

“The bigger problem in Twin Falls County is our felony caseload has increased,” Hughes said. “Inmates are staying longer without being able to be bonded. We’re incarcerating the right people, but that caseload has increased.”

County commissioners, he said, are exploring the possibility of an expansion but are waiting on a study to provide direction. In years past, specialty programs like drug and mental health courts have helped the inmate count level off, but those programs are no longer enough, Hughes said.

It costs about $82 a day to house an inmate in the Twin Falls County jail. (In comparison, each Ada County inmate costs about $96 a day.)

The current jail opened in 1990. In 2005, it reached a point where authorities had to send 30 to 40 inmates to other sites. That situation improved, but now there is fear the problem will reach that level again.


Canyon County has had issues with overcrowding and jail conditions for years, including past lawsuits by the ACLU. Public votes to fund construction of a new jail have fallen short, and county officials were divided for several years on whether to expand the current building instead. Now, county commissioners are exploring another attempt at a new facility.

In the meantime, the sheriff’s office has adapted a canvas tent structure to house minimum-security inmates. That has presented a variety of safety issues, including nine escapes since 2015.

On Thursday, the jail held 413 inmates, said county spokesman Joe Decker. Its maximum capacity is 477. Another 19 inmates were being housed out-of-county because they had a security classification Canyon County couldn’t accomodate due to lack of space.

In Canyon County, it costs about $80 per day to house an inmate at the jail.


This jail was also over its maximum capacity on Thursday. It holds 21 people, but had 23 inside, said Gooding County Sheriff Shaun Gough.

Gough said the county is allowed to let inmates sleep on the floor for up to 24 hours before they must find an alternate solution. Gooding County is not yet housing inmates out of the county, nor was the facility accepting inmates for other counties.

In recent years, Gooding sought to partner with Jerome County on a regional jail. But that effort did not move forward.

“The commissioners and I agreed that it didn’t make sense,” Jerome Sheriff Doug McFall said about sharing space with Gooding County. “The issues involved were going to outweigh the benefits.”

Gough said his jail continues to pass its yearly inspection, but he continues to have problems with appropriate square footage in the building. It costs about $50 a day to house an inmate in the Gooding County jail.

His county is left with few solutions, he said. County officials will discuss the alternatives at a meeting this week. There is no current plan in place for a jail expansion or for ways to reduce the inmate count.

“People continue to commit crimes, and we don’t set the bonds,” Gough said about his office.


Jerome County has achieved a challenging task — in 2013, after multiple attempts, its voters passed an $11.4 million bond for a new jail that holds up to 136 inmates. The new building opened three years later, according to the Times-News.

On Thursday, the jail had 100 inmates. McFall said it averages 80 to 100. Each inmate costs roughly $100 a day to house, he said.

“We keep filling those beds and are helping pay back the bond,” he said.

In fact, Jerome County has worked on several deals to hold inmates for other counties that need the help. Last week, it signed a contract with Twin Falls County agreeing to reserve at least five beds for Twin Falls inmates. Twin Falls County will pay $58 per bed per day.

Lincoln County, which does not have its own jail, pays Jerome County $60 per bed per day to reserve at least two beds.

The Idaho Department of Correction has been exploring whether it could send some inmates to Jerome County.

And news this summer that McFall was working on a deal to house U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates caused controversy. ICE would possibly pay $75 per bed per day, but McFall said he still hasn’t seen a formal proposal from the agency to finalize the deal.

McFall figures he has to pay a certain amount per bed per day anyway to cover building depreciation, utilities, deputy salaries and benefits, supplies and other expenses. The agreements don’t add much more cost and help cover some of the expenses, he said.

“We can definitely fill all of the beds up, but the worst thing about state inmates is the fee (per day) is set up by the state,” McFall said. “It’s $45 a day.”


IDOC has had its own overcrowding problems over time. Less than a year ago, it reduced crowding enough that it could bring back prison inmates housed in other states.

But, adding to the strain put on county jails, the agency has seen an increase in prison admissions over the last few months, according to Deputy Director Jeff Zmuda.

IDOC’s low point for inmates assigned to its prisons came around May 2016, when the department had around 7,700 people in its care. On Thursday, IDOC was up to 8,325 inmates.

Of those, IDOC was housing about 749 inmates in county jails, a count that’s on the high end. Zmuda said that in the past, IDOC has turned to county facilities to hold anywhere from 200 to 900 inmates.

Idaho lawmakers in 2014 passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, intended to release more drug and property-crime offenders from prison and save the state money. While numbers have initially shown the program is working, recidivism could again create an increase in inmate population in the future. Various Idaho law enforcement agencies also say offenders released under the act who later violate their probation or parole are contributing to the crowding problem in county jails.

IDOC anticipates prison admissions will continue to increase, Zmuda said. He did not attribute it to the Justice Reinvestment Act.