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Idaho lawmakers search for ways to reduce prison population

The Idaho Statehouse. As the prison population grows, some lawmakers are taking a second look at measures that could reduce the number of people going to prison. File photo.

Some Idaho lawmakers are taking a second look at recommendations to reclassify some felonies as misdemeanors as the prison population grows.

The Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee heard from state prison and probation officials and experts with the Council of State Governments June 18. Idaho has more than 8,600 prison inmates today, and prison officials expect that number to increase to more than 10,000 by the end of 2022.

Based on that projection, the state will need about 2,400 more prison beds. Prison officials are now looking at building a new prison and expanding several others at a cost of more than $500 million. They’re also discussing increasing efforts to prevent people from going to prison in the first place.

Committee co-chair Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, a Republican from Huston, said giving inmates “good time” credit for behaving well in prison or finding alternative sentencing options could be useful options.

“We’re building a huge industry around punishment for crime and safety,” Lodge said, urging the committee to look at how churches, community groups and families can help.

The state began the criminal justice reinvestment project about four years ago, bringing together judges, attorneys, correction officials, substance abuse workers and others to try to find ways to reduce Idaho’s prison population. The effort had bipartisan support along with expert policy and analysis help from the Council of State Governments.

The Legislature made several tweaks to Idaho’s laws, including passing legislation that improved the way the state tracked crime and recidivism rates, changed the way substance abuse treatment funding was distributed and gave probation and parole officers more flexibility in sanctioning offenders who were violating probation rules.

“We have some definite problems that we were facing in 2013 when we started this and they are bigger problems today so we need to find a way to make some turnaround and find out what we can do to bring these problems down,” Lodge said.

Lawmakers declined to adopt policy suggestions made in 2013, said Elizabeth Lyon with the Council of State Governments. They might want to contemplate those changes now, she said.

“Idaho is really dealing with methamphetamine, opioids and heroin,” Lyon said. “People who have substance abuse addiction or other behavioral health needs have higher recidivism rates than those without specialized needs.”

The biggest challenge states face is making sure that there are enough local drug treatment options available to those in need, Lyon said. Increasing access to treatment is key to keeping people out of prison.

“Drug treatment in prison is not as effective as drug treatment in the community,” she said.

Other options include reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors. Some of the lawmakers on the committee, including GOP Rep. James Holtzclaw of Meridian and Democratic Rep. Melissa Wintrow of Boise, expressed interest in examining Idaho’s felony drug possession laws. People in Idaho can be charged with felonies if investigators find even trace amounts of certain drugs like methamphetamine.

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