Idaho Department of Correction director Josh Tewalt’s budget presentation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Tuesday went resoundingly well among the committee members.
Tewalt hit all the right notes with talk of reform, reducing recidivism, and trying new methods and strategies to reduce the prison population and “bend the curve” in incarceration rates.
But one point of his budget looks like it might hit a snag: money that the state pays to counties to house state prisoners in county jails.
Under the current formula, the state pays $55 per day for each inmate for the first seven days and $75 per day for every day thereafter.
“A single daily flat rate is the way to go,” Tewalt said. IDOC is proposing a single daily rate of $60 for fiscal year 2021 and $65 for fiscal year 2022.
“Sheriffs want it to be at the highest level, and I want it at the lowest level,” Tewalt said, so his proposal “splits the baby.”
Tewalt said it would yield a cost saving in his budget of roughly $1.5 million.
One group that isn’t happy with that proposal is Ada County, which is already embroiled in a legal dispute with the state over state prisoners being housed in the Ada County Jail.
Ada County sheriff: ’It’s a terrible plan’
“A lot of people have been asking me what I think about the Idaho Department of Correction’s proposal to reduce the funding IDOC pays Ada County — and the other counties in Idaho — to place their inmates in our county jails,” Ada County Sheriff Steve Bartlett posted on Facebook Thursday. “Let me be blunt. It’s a terrible plan.”
Ada County houses 1,063 inmates in the jail today, close to the jail’s capacity of 1,116, according to Ada County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Patrick Orr. Of those 1,063, 395 are state inmates in one way or another, or more than 35% of the total population.
The state and Ada County already are fighting over these inmates.
In a guest opinion in the Idaho Statesman in December, Bartlett detailed the county’s position in calling for a judge to enforce a decades-old court order that requires IDOC to remove inmates from the Ada County Jail within seven days of learning that they belong in state custody. The court put a similar order in place in Kootenai County, requiring IDOC to remove its inmates within 14 days.
Orr said that the county agrees with moving to a flat fee, but “it should be closer to the average daily cost per inmate here at the Ada County Jail, which for fiscal 2019 was $102.86.”
“Seventy-five dollars per inmate per day is not enough,” Orr wrote in an email to me. “Reducing that to $60 is outrageous. … So we would lose a massive amount of money under what was discussed (Tuesday) – and IDOC knows it. They don’t pay enough now, and their proposal is to pay less. It is a classic tax shift.”
Senator questions tax shift
State Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, who sits on the budget committee and heard Tewalt’s presentation, echoed those concerns.
“As I’m thinking about your proposal to kind of ‘split the baby,’ it feels like a move backwards rather than really pushing the department to add more to the budget to really address these issues,” Lee said to Tewalt during the committee meeting. “As I’m hearing from my sheriffs, we’re paying, my local property taxpayers are paying these costs.”
Tewalt said plans to add beds in state and to send about 500 more prisoners out of state will help alleviate the burden on county jails.
“I understand the counties and their responsibility to the county property tax owners, but it’s equally hard for me to justify to the state income taxpayers that we’re going to pay up to $75 a day for a bed that doesn’t provide the service that we would normally provide in a state-supported institution.”
Canyon County sheriff not happy, either
Canyon County isn’t on board, either.
Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker emailed me a statement from Sheriff Kieran Donahue.
“This is just another example of the State and IDOC passing the buck to county taxpayers who are already struggling with rising property taxes,” the statement reads. “We as Sheriffs lobbied the legislature for years to finally get the daily rate increased to $75 per day, which still doesn’t come close to covering the daily cost to counties for housing inmates.”
The sheriff’s statement says a conservative average cost estimate to house an inmate in Canyon County is $89.
“If this proposal were to move forward, it would reduce our IDOC reimbursements by approximately 15% per year,” according to the statement. “That loss of revenue would have to be made up elsewhere, likely in the form of increased property taxes. In short, this proposal is nothing more than an insult to county taxpayers and county sheriffs across the state.”
The Idaho Sheriffs Association put together numbers based on reporting from 29 of the 36 county jails and showed the average cost of housing inmates to be $99.61 per day.
“The math is simple,” according to a statement Friday from the Idaho Sheriffs Association. “The average daily cost for housing a state inmate in a county jail is $99. Jails currently receive $75 a day after housing a state inmate for seven days at $55 a day. Reducing that amount to $60 would require the counties to make up even a greater difference.”
The statement from the Sheriffs Association calls for the Legislature to create an interim committee to explore the funding of appropriate correctional facilities.
“The Idaho prison system is broken through no fault of IDOC,” according to the statement. “Sending incarcerated Idahoans out of state is a loser for the inmate, the inmate’s families and sends millions of Idaho taxpayer dollars to other states.”
In a year where state legislators are talking about measures to reduce property taxes, keeping that $1.5 million in the state Department of Correction budget and getting it off the backs of property taxpayers is the right move here.
Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.
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