Lawmaker on Idaho's prison population: 'It absolutely stunned me'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- After three years in prison, at a cost to Idaho taxpayers of $55 a day, Efren Zavala is moments from being released.

But he's leaving confinement at a time when Idaho -- even with its low crime rate -- has the second-fastest growing prison population in the country.

And Zavala experienced those crowded conditions firsthand.

"It just makes a lot of hassle," he said. "A lot of resentment, prison-mates to the government, a lot of distrust that shouldn't be there."

At the current growth rate -- unless something changes dramatically --taxpayers in Idaho will have to spend almost $300 million in prison construction and operating costs by 2019. That's according to a new report by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center.

The report also says one major factor driving Idaho's booming prison population is this: non-violent offenders in Idaho serve prison sentences that are twice as long as the national average.

Non-violent crimes do not involve force or injury to another person. The offenses include theft, embezzlement, fraud, as well as drug and alcohol-related crimes.

"It's costing you significantly," said Marc Pelka with the Justice Center. "And it's not allowing you to focus your prison resources where it works best -- on violent offenders."

That conclusion shocked lawmakers.

"It absolutely stunned me," said Rep. Richard Wills, (R-Glenns Ferry). "Truly, it amazed me. It amazed me, it really did."

"It's why our prison population is growing," said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, a Canyon County Republican. "We have a low crime rate, but a high incarceration rate."

And many people think Idaho needs to take a closer look at its sentencing guidelines. They think maybe more people are being sent to prison than is necessary. In both Idaho and across the nation, those who commit property and drug crimes, spend an average of about two years behind bars.

But in Idaho, inmates get another two years tacked on because of something called indeterminate sentencing.

And a majority of men and women are locked up in Idaho for non-violent crimes, 62 percent of them. Compare that to the national average of 47 percent.

"We've been working with the court on that very question for the last four or five years," said Brent Reinke, director of the Idaho Department of Correction. "And we'll continue to do that and give the court feedback on the best way sentences are brought forward."

Solutions could include more supervision and less prison-time for non-violent offenders plus the hiring of more parole and probation officers. While Idaho searches for answers, Efren Zavala reunites with his family and take his first steps outside the walls in more than a thousand days, walking toward the challenge of a new life.