The state has begun in recent weeks the most significant changes since the 1970s to reduce overcrowding — and chip away at an astonishing 70 percent recidivism rate, the highest in the country — as the prison population becomes a major drag on the state’s crippled finances.
Many in the state still advocate a tough approach, with long sentences served in full, and some early problems with released inmates have given critics reason to complain. But fiscal reality, coupled with a court-ordered reduction in the prison population, is pouring cold water on old solutions like building more prisons.
The results of California's reform efforts are already paying dividends - its prison population declined in 2009. The approach is simple - release non-violent offenders and stop sending probation and parole violators back to prison for technical violations and trivial crimes.
Idaho is among a group of states that saw its prison population increase last year (1.5% - The IDOC is reporting a .7% decrease). At the same time, the IDOC budget was reduced by over $30 million for FY 2011. Director Reinke has indicated to the legislature that he plans to "slow the flow," and he certainly can play a major role in reducing the prison population.
Here are a few other steps that should be undertaken
- Community Corrections should be directed to stop or reduce significantly probation and parole violation proceedings in cases of technical violations and most misdemeanor crimes.
- Prosecutors should reduce the number of sentencing recommendations that include incarceration.
- Judges should send fewer people to prison when they can be supervised adequately in the community.
- The legislature should begin to reform the sentences including removing mandatory minimums.
- The legislature should fund more treatment programs.
We must be mindful of the explosion of growth of individuals on probation and the problems in county jails. Solving the prison population problem by exacerbating the probation and jail crisis is no bargain.
I commend the Director for his efforts to address the crisis, but am not optimistic that Idaho is serious about addressing this issue. In fact, several key legislators have been antagonistic to the idea of releasing inmates. So far, the governor has shown no leadership on this issue.
Idaho will have to wait until the federal courts intervene. A law suit has been filed against CCA and the State by the ACLU on behalf of inmates who were assaulted and/or denied treatment at what has been described as a "gladiator school." Stand by as more litigation is on the way.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Someone needs to step up and lead the way on this effort. Success will require the participation of all the stakeholders. We could save millions of dollars each year, provide for public safety, and return offenders to the community with realistic chances of success.