Idaho prisoner release has drawbacks

You have to appreciate Idaho Department of Correction Director Kevin Kempf. If ever there was a job that demanded its holder to be a realist, it’s this one, and Kempf couldn’t be a better fit.

The state’s justice system has seen a return of many of its inmates from out of state. The reason for that is simple: more of the ones who have been incarcerated here, particularly for non-violent drug and property offenses, have been released. That has opened up beds for 173 inmates that had been sent out of state so they can return here.

Looking at the issue from a strict cost-to-taxpayers perspective, it’s a positive. Housing inmates isn’t cheap — close to $50 per day per inmate. That’s the cost to incarcerate them in Idaho.

Sending them to other states can, and usually does, cost even more. So from a strictly financial point of view, it saves the state money. In our case, Idaho inmates were being housed in Colorado, and IDOC staff were required to travel there a few times per month, staying there for two or three days each time, to ensure the contract was being upheld.

On a national level, finding ways to reduce the incarceration rate has been a debate that has heated up, especially as our national debt continues to close in on $20 trillion. The United States has just 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it’s home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. About half of those behind bars are there for drug offenses, leading those of a more Libertarian stripe to call for lesser penalties for more minor drug offenses.

But that point of view hasn’t played itself out in Idaho’s lockups. Our state had the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation despite its relative low overall crime rate, and adults sentenced to prison for nonviolent crimes in Idaho were serving twice as much time as adults sentenced to prison for nonviolent crimes in other states.

So the Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act unanimously with the expectation of lowering incarceration rates to the tune of $288 million in savings over five years.

So the good news is we’re lowering our lockup costs. But here’s where Kempf’s realism comes in — we’re putting offenders back on the streets sooner, and drug and property offenders have the highest rates of recidivism. Those released for more violent, serious crimes, as as general rule, tend to be more compliant with the terms of their parole.

So your celebration of the cost savings to taxpayers could be tempered rather significantly if one of these people goes on a car window-smashing spree in your neighborhood. . . .

Another reform of the legislation was to reform penalties for parole violations. This has decreased parole violators being housed at the prison but has increased the caseload for probation and parole officers. There is also concern about removing discretion from the parole commission based on the circumstances of each case.

As Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue and Canyon County commissioners continue to debate the need for a proposed expansion to the county jail, the debate over who should be locked up will continue. Some say the county doesn’t need more jail space because it incarcerates too many nonviolent offenders. Others have said limited beds have required officers to play catch-and-release with dangerous criminals because there’s nowhere to house them. Calls for more treatment programs and alternative sentencing programs for drug offenders always seem to increase whenever anyone suggests building a new jail.

Based on how the previous three attempts at gaining voter support for that new jail have gone, it’s safe to say many in Canyon County are glad to see the reforms that are reducing the number of Idaho prisoners. But they should also realize that those statistics translate to more offenders with high recidivism rates out there on the streets.