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Slammed with overcrowding, TF county jail makes do

Inmates go about their business Dec. 21 at the county jail in Twin Falls. Currently the block meant initially only for intake has swelled to 16 beds and 28 men. Overcrowding issues abound with the county spending money to transport prisoners back and forth between jails as far away as Madison County near Rexburg for court hearings.

DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS

TWIN FALLS — A bill introduced in the state legislature last week could exacerbate crowding problems at the Twin Falls County Jail, the heads of the jail and probation department say.

SB 1238 would officially let counties require that defendants be supervised as a condition of their release while they await trial. The practice, while not technically authorized in Idaho statute, is common.

The bill would also cap the amount that counties are allowed to charge defendants for pretrial supervision at $30 a month — one-fifth of what Twin Falls County charges.

Twin Falls County’s rate of $150 a month, the highest in the state, was singled out by Sara Thomas, administrative director of the Idaho Courts, in a testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee last week. Thomas questioned the ethics of charging $5 a day, noting that Twin Falls’ rate for pretrial supervision is twice as high as the legal maximum that counties can charge people who are on misdemeanor probation.

“It is very surprising to think that someone who is released pretrial, who is not on probation and who is presumed innocent, is paying more than someone who has been convicted of a crime,” Thomas told the Times-News.

But local officials counter that Twin Falls’ high rate is necessary to cover the costs of its court compliance program — and they worry that without it, the county could see an increase in its jail population.

To compare Twin Falls’ rates to those of other counties without considering the context of the programs themselves is to take a “simplistic view of the situation,” said Kevin Sandau, director of probation services for Twin Falls County.

“The reality is there’s 44 counties and everyone does things a little differently,” Sandau said. “I know that not every county in the state puts [the same] kind of resources into the program.”

Including Twin Falls, 30 Idaho counties have some type of supervised pretrial release program in place. Programs vary from county to county in terms of structure, costs, and fees; many counties don’t charge defendants anything at all for pretrial supervision.

The Twin Falls court compliance program was established in 2003, with the goal of reducing severe crowding in the jail. After learning that many people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors were unable to afford bail, the county devised a program that would let those accused of low-level crimes pay $5 a day to await their trial outside of jail — a lower fee than the $25 a day inmates were charged to stay in jail. Those deemed indigent by court standards could have their supervision fees waived.

While the court compliance program was initially aimed at nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, the program now accepts people charged with both felonies and misdemeanors. According to the probation department’s most recent report, the majority of participants in the program — 67 percent — are now people accused of felonies.

Pretrial supervision is slightly less involved than supervision of a person on probation. Depending on the nature of the crime, it can include some combination of drug and alcohol testing, curfews, and address verification.

The total annual cost of the program is about $115,000, including materials, resources, training, office space and salaries for the county’s two pretrial supervision officers, Sandau said.

The court compliance program averaged 165 participants per month in 2017, and brought in approximately $70,000. The roughly $45,000 that wasn’t paid for by participants was covered by the county.

Sandau worries about the future of the program if the county has to shoulder more of those expenses under the potential new law.

“It’s certainly going to decrease revenue if they do it as it’s currently introduced. I don’t know how much that would hit us,” Sandau said. “It depends on the commissioners and whether they believe the program is worth additional funds.”

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Complicating matters further is the issue of overcrowding in the Twin Falls County Jail, a problem officials attribute to a local rise in felonies and crowding in the state prison system. The 224-bed jail has held as many as 260 inmates at a time in recent months.

Capt. Doug Hughes, commander of the Sheriff’s Office’s Security Services Division, said he believes the court compliance program was helpful in alleviating the jail’s overcrowding problem in 2003. But since then, the county has seen an increase in the number of defendants entering the criminal justice system who are not eligible for the program, he said.

“I think the program worked out pretty good in the beginning,” Hughes said. “But I think the population is such now that a lot of people aren’t meeting the criteria.”

Still, without the program in its current form, the jail could be housing as many as 165 additional inmates per day.

“Obviously, the ones that do meet the criteria and are going out on court compliance is lessening the number of beds that I have filled every day,” Hughes said. “From my end, the people that are in the program already, or the potential people that could go in that program, could greatly affect the jail population.”

In making his case for funding the court compliance program, Sandau compared the cost of housing additional inmates in the county jail to the cost of the supervised pretrial release program.

“We know how expensive it is to run a jail,” Sandau said. “It’s much more than just the two of us out there watching these people in the community.”

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