On July 15, the Times-News reprinted an attack on Idaho’s prosecutors written by the Lewiston Tribune. Almost everything the Tribune wrote was wrong. We need to set the record straight.
The Tribune editorial argues that Idaho is “spending a lot of money locking up people for their first drug offense.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Idaho judges, prosecutors and law enforcement are putting the right people in prison—and the statistics prove it.
The Tribune piece starts with grossly inaccurate, and now discredited, statistics about Idaho’s prison population made public by Idaho Department of Corrections Director Henry Atencio before the legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee on July 10. Atencio said Idaho has 1245 “drug offenders” in its prison system, 40.6 percent of those, had “no prior felony convictions.” The Tribune quotes Atencio as saying that 52.8 percent of Idaho’s prison inmates are there for drug convictions. The insinuation is that these people are wrongly imprisoned.
But the numbers Atencio provided, and the analysis the Tribune applied to them, are both dramatically and provably wrong. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials around the state immediately recognized these numbers were wrong, so we dived into the individual case files to get the actual facts.
First, some basic math. It’s true that 1245 inmates in Idaho’s prison are there for drug offenses. But, because there are 6754 people in Idaho prisons, the percentage is 18.43 percent, not the fantastical 52.8 percent that appears in the Tribune editorial.
However, even that doesn’t tell the full story. Of the 1245 incarcerated for drug offenses an examination undertaken by prosecutors of the individual case files show 258 are there for manufacturing, distributing and trafficking in the most dangerous drugs, not for simple possession. Further, Director Atencio admits that 742 of the remaining 987 have prior felony convictions. This leaves only 245 inmates, not 1245, alleged by IDOC to be “first-time offenders” whose only crime is the mere possession of illegal drugs.
The problem is, these IDOC numbers are wrong, too. To get the facts straight, Idaho’s Prosecuting Attorneys looked at the case files of every one of IDOC’s 245 “first-time offenders” and found:
- 97 have prior felony convictions, many have numerous prior felonies, including robbery, rape, and child sexual abuse. (These numbers are confirmed by IDOC.)
- 142 were given rehabilitative opportunities by Idaho’s prosecutors and judges. Most had multiple chances at probation in the community, treatment in the retained jurisdiction program, drug court, mental health court, other problem-solving courts and various community treatment programs. Because they squandered those chances and violated their probation — many by committing new crimes — Idaho’s judges appropriately imprisoned them.
So, we’re down to six, not 1245. This means only 0.09 percent of Idaho’s prison population are “first-time drug offenders” who were not given rehabilitative programs prior to being imprisoned. Of those: two had lengthy non-felony criminal histories; one had four drug-dealing crimes dismissed; one was from out-of-state, fled prior to sentencing and was on the run for two years; and two had immigration holds.
Judges and prosecutors don’t analyze a case based merely on the particular crime committed by a defendant. It would be reckless to make decisions about these important safety issues on such a shallow basis. Judges and prosecutors also know that it’s a misnomer to claim that all drug offenders are “non-violent.” It is simply not true that drug offenders are “non-violent.” Each day we see victims of violent crimes committed by drug offenders — either dealers defending their turf, or users scrambling for money to buy drugs to feed their addiction.
We are responsible for insuring the safety and order of the community. We must look at all the available facts about a defendant and his crime before making a sentencing decision.
Idaho has a problem, and it’s not with our judges, our prosecutors, or our law-enforcement. We have a crime problem. Crime is on the rise. In Twin Falls County, new felony cases have increased by 65 percent since Idaho adopted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2014. Recidivism is also on the rise. Many parolees released after their sentences turn right around and re-offend. Idaho Executive Director of the Commission of Pardons and Parole, Sandy Jones, told the JRI Oversight Committee that 59 percent of parole violators are coming back before the Parole Commission with new felony convictions. Idaho’s explosive population growth is also a major contributor to the growth of our prison population. IDOC hasn’t built a new prison facility since 2000, while Idaho’s population has increased almost 500,000. Idaho has a prison resource problem and the statistics above prove that problem is not caused by “locking up people for their first drug offense.”
We have a choice to make. We can attempt to solve our crime problem by ignoring new crimes and letting criminals go free to again endanger society — the California approach advocated by the Tribune article the Times-News re-printed on July 14. Or, we can do the responsible thing and update, maintain and enhance our prison infrastructure.
In making this decision, it’s critical that our policy makers and our citizens have accurate data about Idaho’s prison population and the threat posed to our community by the wholesale release of inmates. We don’t know what the cost of a new prison will be. It won’t be cheap, but it will be less expensive than abandoning our responsibilities to keep Idaho families safe in their communities.