Idaho View: Idaho gets tough on parolees — and taxpayers

Idaho View: Idaho gets tough on parolees — and taxpayers

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If you want to lock up more people in prison — and bilk the taxpayers in the process — then Idaho is where you want to be.

Nowhere else in the union will you find a higher rate of people doing time in prison, not because they broke the law but because they violated the technical terms of their parole or probation.

So says a new study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

That’s bad for taxpayers. Placing someone in prison costs about $66 a day. Supervising a probationer or parolee costs about $5 a day.

And it’s hard to see how that helps a parolee. All the progress he’s made toward transitioning back into society — a job, housing, substance abuse or mental health counseling, even rebuilding relationships — is forfeited.

“To me, all of these statistics suggest that Idaho’s probation and parole systems are failing,” Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman with the Prison Policy Initiative, told Tommy Simmons of the Idaho Press. “Reincarcerating people for technical violations is the most obvious injustice and waste of money.”

As Simmons reported last month, 5,298 Idaho inmates — 62 percent of the state’s prison population last year — were locked up because they broke parole.

Elsewhere in the West:

  • Utah — 49 percent of its prison population is serving time for breaking the terms of release. That’s the fifth-highest rate in the country.
  • Washington — 39 percent, ranked ninth.
  • Montana — 34 percent, ranked 11th.
  • Wyoming — 30 percent, ranked 16th.
  • Nevada — 22 percent, ranked 24th.
  • Oregon — 14 percent, ranked 37th.

The Justice Center says Idaho is spending $111 million each year to lock up parolees for breaking the rules. The state prison population is overflowing, which means some Idaho inmates are sweating it out in private prisons in other states. Meanwhile, Idaho still remains poised to spend another $500 million on new prison facilities.

And all of this is occurring in a state that just boasted a 2 percent drop in its crime rate and the lowest proportion of violent crime within the western U.S.

Parole systems are no exception to the tough-on-crime mantra that took hold in the country beginning with the Reagan era. Rather than focusing on what would help rehabilitate parolees — such as housing, education and employment — the system is geared toward punishing people for such things as:

l Failing a urine test.

l Leaving the jurisdiction without permission.

l Not reporting to a parole officer as required.

l Breaking curfew.

l Failing to keep the batteries on an ankle monitor charged.

l Consorting with people who have felony convictions.

Granted, parole is a privilege, not a right. But unless you want to resort to lifetime incarceration for everything from burglary to drug use, at some point society has to take the calculated gamble that someone who has served time in prison can be successfully guided back toward becoming a productive member of society.

So how do you respond to someone who breaks the rules of release?

Anyone who repeatedly refuses to obey the terms of his parole deserves what he gets. But the emerging trend pointed toward a steadily escalating response. On the first violation, maybe you require more supervision and restrictions. On subsequent offenses, it may require a “shock” lockup in the local jail.

Even Idaho pursued reforms. In 2014, the Justice Reinvestment Act empowered local parole officers to rely on a matrix of responses that included steadily longer periods of time in the county jail.

It turned out to be a brief respite. Three years later, under lobbying from prosecutors, lawmakers abandoned that approach and restored the authority of the state parole board to decide who remains on the outside and who returns to custody.

Now the results are in: As Bertram said, the system is failing. — M.T.


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