‘Too poor to get out of jail’ is the wrong way to run Idaho courts, judge says

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

Ada County will receive $1 million to be a laboratory for criminal justice reforms — tackling problems like those Magistrate Judge James Cawthon sees from his seat at the front of the courtroom.

“I have individuals coming before me for invalid licenses, driving without privileges, (and) they’ve sat in the jail for 45 days because they couldn’t post a small, monetary bond,” Cawthon said during a jail tour Oct. 4. “In other words, I’ve got an individual who’s too poor to get out of jail.”

And there are people charged with misdemeanors who fail to show up for court hearings, leading to their arrests — even though they weren’t trying to avoid the hearings.

All of them add to the number of people the Ada County Jail must hold.

“We know, from what’s happened around the state and other places, that once this jail is full, that full jail begins driving criminal justice decisions,” Cawthon said. “We need to be smarter about the decisions we’re making on the bench. We need to be smarter about how we are using our jails.”

The county’s new grant was a couple of years in the making. It comes from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a nationwide campaign for criminal justice reform.

At one level, it’s an attempt for Ada County to get a handle on its jail population before it grows beyond control. The methods used may also result in a fairer, more appropriate approach to incarceration.

The money, to be provided over two years, will pay for eight new positions. According to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, those will include inmate case managers, court clerks, a planning analyst, and a safety and justice program manager.

Their work will enable the rest of the reforms the county proposes.

The ideas

One change has already been made. On June 1, county policy was revised to state that anyone arrested for misdemeanor driving without privileges or failure to have insurance will be released without having to post a cash bond. The revision is actually a pilot project approved by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Since then, the policy has helped 32 people avoid any jail time. Most people the policy would benefit, however, ended up booked on additional charges that don’t qualify for their release on their own supervision. The Sheriff’s Office is looking at other ways to expand the policy to those inmates.

Public defenders and prosecutors are also now regularly seeking out inmates with low-level misdemeanors who can’t afford bond. They then work with those inmates to get their cases wrapped up and get them out of the jail, the Sheriff’s Office said.

A county survey of people charged with failure to appear for a court hearing found that 50 percent just didn’t know or forgot about their scheduled court date. Another 24 percent cited transportation issues, and 8 percent said they had work or child-care conflicts.

Because of that problem, Ada County plans to create a notification system that will allow court staff to send out alerts — including texts, emails and phone calls — about upcoming court dates. A new unit at the Public Defender’s Office will help clients navigate the court system and attend their hearings. The county will also pursue increased access to public transportation.

Ada County would be the first county in Idaho to use this kind of notification system. Sheriff Steve Bartlett said the system is much like getting a notification about an appointment made for a dental or medical 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.

Pathways Community Crisis Center, to open at 7192 Potomac Drive in Boise, is expected provide assessment, treatment, and referrals for people who are experiencing a crisis related to mental health or substance abuse disorders.

Cawthon said he hopes the additional staff can bring judges more information about defendants and their histories, to help judges assess whether a person should be in jail or should be released while their case proceeds.

“(We’ll) fulfill our mission of evaluating people, determining who should be in jail, who should not be in jail, and really provide that highest level of service to our community that you all should expect from us,” said Bartlett.

The need

The funding 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 such as Twin Falls, Gooding and Canyon are bursting at the seams. 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 reports 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.

Twin Falls County

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. Specialty programs like drug and mental health courts have helped the inmate count level off, but those programs are no longer enough, he said.

“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.”

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.)

Canyon County

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.

Gooding County

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, and Jerome County ended up building its own new facility that opened in 2016.

“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 examine their options at a meeting this week.

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

Jerome County

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.”

Idaho Department of Correction

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 the 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.