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Officials excited about new approach to criminal justice

| February 23, 2015 8:00 PM

BOISE (AP) - Idaho officials are excited about a change in the state's approach to criminal justice.

The state had one of the highest incarceration rates in the country in 2013, with a prison population that was expected to jump 16 percent over the next five years. Imprisoned nonviolent offenders were doing twice as much time as those in other states, and officials were considering spending $288 million on a new prison, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Instead, Idaho opted into a national program that analyzed, at almost no cost to the state, what was driving its incarceration problems. It found Idaho could avoid building the costly new prison by beefing up community-based supervision programs for nonviolent offenders - keeping fewer people behind bars.

Last year, lawmakers unanimously enacted the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The blueprint includes measures to improve supervision and diversion programs, such as probation; more efficiently use prison space; and boost oversight, including ways to track criminal justice outcomes.

The legislation took effect in July, and measurable results are expected this year. The five-year goal is a 1 percent drop in the prison population - as opposed to the projected 16 percent increase.

The projected cost over that time? Just $33 million.

"I have been licensed to practice law since 1974 and I believe your enactment of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is the most important change, indeed a transformation, in criminal justice during my career," state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick told lawmakers early this month.

The Justice Reinvestment project was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice, and aided by detailed research into Idaho's system from the Council of State Governments. The Council of State Governments found that Idaho has a relatively low crime rate and high incarceration rate compared to other states, and that the number of people in Idaho prisons grew nearly 30 percent between 2004 and 2010. More than a third of those in prison are repeat offenders.

Idaho is among 18 states that have benefited from the national program. In each case, states changed policies to address rising prison populations and corrections costs after looking at data on sentencing, probation and parole, and inmate populations.

The analyses showed how states would save money - and see better results - by channeling more nonviolent offenders into community-based supervision programs like probation.

"It costs us a little under $4 a day to supervise someone in the community compared to $57 a day in one of our prisons," said Kevin Kempf, Correction Department director. "These inmates are coming out of the prison system. Keeping them locked up forever is not reality. Once you understand that, what type of inmate do you want as your neighbor? We inherently believe let's focus resources toward trying to do something with that inmate, that offender, to have them be a better neighbor, arm them with some tools so they can think differently than we first found them."

Idaho's new system requires that recidivism rates - the rate at which someone convicted of a crime goes on to commit future crimes - be included in the report that a judge normally gets on a defendant before sentencing. If the person is nonviolent and low-risk, judges can sentence them to a community program such as probation or substance abuse treatment.

Probation and parole officers are also getting increased training and support, and the authority to bring swift and certain sanctions on those who violate their probation. The sanctions are supposed to reduce the amount of time - often months - that a probationer has to wait before they are seen by a judge on a probation violation charge, and hopefully, keep them from having to serve out their full prison terms.

"Nobody wins when I have to take someone into custody and write a report of violation," said Colin Starry, a senior probation and parole officer. "The offender's not winning because he's going to be incarcerated, the community's not winning because he's not paying taxes, the state's not winning since we have to house that guy."