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It came toward the end of the state of the state speech, suggesting maybe this wasn’t one of the subjects intended to lead off discussions of the speech.

But it wasn’t tossed off. Idaho Governor Brad Little spent enough time on it – more than a dozen sentences, which is actually a significant amount of speech time – that clearly he took this hitherto less-discussed topic with seriousness:

The rate of incarceration and what happens to those incarcerated people – and the society that will receive them – when they are let out from behind the locked doors.

The tone here is different than it was in decades past when the tenor of speeches at the Statehouse tended to start and stop with getting and staying tough on crime. The end result of that has been one of the nation’s highest levels of incarceration and little to improve on what happens when, as the vast majority of prisoners will, the inmates return.

That subject is vast and there’s a lot to unpack, and Little didn’t address nearly all of it; that would have been beyond the capacity of a single speech. What he did say was something new, enough that you wonder if he held it back until toward the end so that the other top subjects (education, Medicaid, regulations and so on) wouldn’t be overshadowed.

He said: “We must also acknowledge that our communities are put at risk when we simply warehouse those who break the law. Our safety is maintained when those returning home from a period of incarceration can become productive citizens. Two-thirds of Idaho inmates are in prison because of probation and parole violations – more than any other state in the country. Idaho taxpayers pay $110 million per year to incarcerate this population. This is a taxpayer issue as well as a public safety issue.”

Little offered some ideas toward dealing with some of this. He proposed a new program – a new program, let that be noted – called Connection and Intervention Stations, to “offer support, treatment, and accountability for the people on community supervision who need it most.” He also suggested continuing or expanding work on “re-entry” centers for inmates.

You don’t have to go back too many years to hear at the Idaho Statehouse a consistent drumbeat of lock-em-away and tough-on-crime, a year after year escalation of more crimes, higher sentences and more people behind bars. A study about a year ago by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy showed the incarceration rate in Idaho had risen by five times over the last 40 years, and state corrections spending went from 4.9 percent of the budget in 1992 to 7.8 percent in 2017. Idaho’s behind-bars rate is significantly higher than the nation’s overall.

All this costs a lot of money and in too many cases it’s created a revolving door of offenders.

The should be plain enough from a cost-benefit standpoint, which Little seemed to recognize.

He argues, “The cost of investing in proven interventions that help inmates turn their lives around before they reoffend is fractional to the cost of incarceration. We have a choice. We can either invest in measures designed to reduce the demand for prison beds and promote safer communities, or we can do nothing and ensure the next check we write is larger than the last. In addition to feeling safe, our children and grandchildren will choose to stay in Idaho if they can maintain a high quality of life, including the ability to get out and enjoy Idaho’s open spaces.”

This sounds like a change in direction. The whole subject hasn’t been hit quite as head-on since former Governor Phil Batt’s “committee of one” took a serious but too-brief look at a part of this two decades ago.

The Idaho Legislature hasn’t, over the last couple of generations, developed much of a track record of adopting this line of reasoning and running with it. Maybe Little recognized as much, and he put these ideas out there by way of planting seeds that may sprout, if not this session, then maybe in another two or three.

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Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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