Justice reform committee: Change probation system

BOISE, Idaho (AP) A committee of lawmakers charged with finding ways to reduce the state's growing prison population presented several potential policy changes to their colleagues Thursday, focusing on keeping probationers and parolees from repeating their criminal behavior.

The Interim Committee on Justice Reinvestment was created in June, with Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter saying he wanted the state to figure out how to do a better job of keeping people out of prison without spending more money. The committee relied on data gathered by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which found Idaho has a relatively low crime rate but the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation.

Idaho prison terms for nonviolent offenses run about twice as long as the national average, and about 40 percent of people filling Idaho's prison beds are there because they had their probation or parole revoked.

At the current growth rate, Idaho will have to spend about $290 million in prison construction and operating costs before 2019, said Marc Pelka, program director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. About $255 million of that projected spending could be saved if the state invests $33 million over the next five years to make changes to the felony probation and parole system, he said.

"We have in the report today a five-part strategy" to lower recidivism rates and target treatment programs to the offenders who need them most, Pelka said.

The committee's proposals focus on ways to help people already on probation and parole to finish their terms successfully, without ending up in prison. One of the proposals would give probation and parole officers the authority to impose immediate sanctions for violators such as a weekend in jail or a return to community-based substance abuse treatment instead of forcing probationers to wait months for a hearing that ultimately sends them back to prison.

With the proposed changes, "we wouldn't have to build a new prison," said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, a committee chair. "Lives would be changed, and we hope, enhanced. That's the importance of the project that we're doing here."

The committee also suggests that the state tailor its supervision resources based on an offender's risk of recidivism. Probationers who meet certain criteria who are serving probation for nonviolent, nonsexual and non-drunken driving offenses and who aren't considered high-risk should be transferred to a limited supervision unit after six or 12 months of successful probation, according to the report. Spending should be increased on community-based treatment and programming for probation and parolees, so that those people can address the issues that might cause them to reoffend.

Prisoners who are serving time for nonviolent offenses should be paroled after serving between 100 and 150 percent of their fixed term, the committee recommends, and serve the remainder of their time under the supervision of a parole officer. Under that plan, someone sentenced to a two-year fixed, eight-year indeterminate prison term for a property crime would be released on parole after serving no more than three years behind bars.

Other recommendations include improving the assessment tools that the state uses to judge the risk parolees pose to communities, and to create an oversight committee that would measure the effects of all the policy changes.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, said the proposals were just the first steps, and that the state needs to take a close look at the whole criminal justice system.

"I don't want us to lose that forward motion," said Wills, co-chairman of the committee. "There are so many things out there that we need to look at. Mental health, it's a huge issue. ... What we're attempting to do this year is to get everyone, all our stakeholders, on the same page."