TWIN FALLS — Twin Falls County prosecuting attorney Grant Loebs has been busier than usual this year.
The prosecutor’s office has filed 127 more felony cases in 2017 than in 2016: 787 cases have been filed so far this year, compared with 660 last year. That’s an increase of 19 percent.
The surge is in keeping with a steady rise in felony case filings since 2014. But the spike this year is more dramatic than in years past.
Why that number has risen so significantly — and what that says about overall crime trends in the area — is a question no one can answer with certainty.
A look at crime statistics from recent years may offer some clues.
Overall, crimes reported by law enforcement agencies in the county didn’t increase between 2014 and 2016. The opposite, in fact: 4,177 offenses were reported in 2016, compared with 4,558 offenses in 2014.
In other words, while the number of felonies reported went down, the number of felony cases that made it to the prosecutor’s desk went up.
Lt. Terry Thueson of the Twin Falls Police Department, the agency responsible for the bulk of those crimes, speculated that the discord could be a result of the police force expanding in recent years. The department has hired six more officers since 2014.
“If we have more officers that are available to work more cases and dedicate more time to those cases, we may have increased our solvability rate,” he said.
The TFPD’s clearance rate didn’t go up over that two-year window: The department cleared roughly 45 percent of offenses reported in 2016, the same percentage cleared in 2014.
Still, Thueson said, the rise in cases filed by the prosecutor’s office could indicate that county attorneys deemed more of those cases prosecutable in 2016 than in 2014.
A statewide increase in parole violations stemming from new arrests could also be playing a role, Thueson noted.
So, the statistics don’t indicate that the increase in felony case filings between 2014 and 2016 was the result of a significant increase in the number of crimes committed. But what about 2017?
It’s unknown whether the sharp spike this year could be linked to an increase in offenses reported, as the police department declined to release its preliminary numbers for 2017.
If crime is indeed on the rise, however, others working in the legal system have some theories as to why.
Sheriff Tom Carter suggested that the increase in felony cases filed might be related to the national opioid crisis, which has just begun to hit the Magic Valley. Police data indicate heroin use in particular has grown more prevalent in the area in recent years, as illegal prescription drugs become harder to access.
While it’s true that the overall number of drug-related felony filings have increased, the percentage hasn’t gone up significantly compared with other types of crimes. About half of all felony cases filed by the prosecutor’s office in 2017 involved drug-related charges, the same portion as in 2014.
Still, Carter noted, some crimes that may not appear explicitly drug-related — such as a robbery — may still be committed with the end goal of procuring drugs.
“Most crime we have is probably related to drugs in some way or another,” Carter said. “I think it’s safe to say that you can probably tie a lot of the rise in crime — I’m not going to say all of it — to drugs.”
Loebs, the county’s top prosecutor, disputed the notion that opioids are largely responsible for the increase. He speculated that a spike could be due to a number of factors, including a natural boom in crime accompanying the growth of Twin Falls as a regional hub.
The county’s population has gone up 8 percent since 2010, which may account for a small portion of the rise. But the more significant growth, Loebs said, could be in the number of shops, restaurants and entertainment options.
“The more we build it up, the more of a beacon we become for areas that don’t have things,” Loebs said. “We really gather a lot of people from all different areas, both for economic benefit and, unfortunately, for misbehavior.”
Another possible factor: prison crowding throughout the state. There were nearly 8,300 state inmates in Idaho in November, overflowing the state’s 2,700 prison beds. The number of inmates is expected to hit almost 8,700 by May of 2019.
“The limited prison space means that more people are getting let out or they’re not going to prison in the first place,” Loebs said. As a result, he noted, Twin Falls County is now filing more cases against people already on probation or already on parole than ever before: “We’re getting more and more repeat customers.”
The increase in the workload has put a significant strain on the county prosecutor’s office, Loebs said. Last year, the office hired two additional staff members.
The sheriff’s office recently received approval to bring on two new deputies as well. If crime is on the rise, Carter is hopeful that the addition of two more officers will serve as a deterrent.
“The more people you have on the street and the higher visibility they are, that in itself helps with the spike in crime,” he said.