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Knudtsen supports prospect of a re-entry center

by Ralph Bartholdt Staff Writer
| February 11, 2020 12:00 AM

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Knudtsen

Proponents of a prison re-entry center that may be headed to Kootenai County say the center is a viable solution to the state’s overcrowded prison system, and that having a re-entry center here can benefit the community.

The Legislature at its last session allocated $12.2 million for a North Idaho department of corrections facility that will prepare around 120 inmates to be released into the community. Although a construction site has not been chosen and there is no date to build the facility, the prospect of a re-entry center here has drawn substantial criticism in Kootenai County.

It has also recruited supporters.

Eve Knudtsen, president of Knudtsen Chevrolet and a member of the lieutenant governor’s government efficiency working group, said she came away with a positive view of the state’s prison re-entry centers after touring a center in southern Idaho.

Knudtsen said that much of the criticism surrounding the prospect of a re-entry center in Kootenai County is not borne out.

“I have long been a proponent of restorative justice, not for violent criminals or sex offenders, but for people who have been convicted of nonviolent crimes such as drugs,” Knudtsen said.

The working group she belongs to is tasked with determining the efficiency of government programs.

One area that could be more streamlined is the corrections system, which is overcrowded and whose inmates include people convicted of drug crimes, Knudtsen said.

“I think this re-entry center is a key piece to help this,” Knudtsen said. “From what I witnessed down there, this is a key piece of restorative justice that needs community support.”

The center targets criminals who are near the end of their sentence and is meant to prepare them for re-entry into the communities they left for prison by offering rehabilitation courses, drug testing, close supervision and a job.

Knudtsen said she is willing to provide work for inmates in a center if it comes to Kootenai County, but such a center would need a lot of support from the business community.

And although she is not alone in her support to locate a prison re-entry facility here, Knudtsen knows it’s an uphill proposition.

“There has to be a willing employment community here to provide jobs for those individuals,” she said.

Knudtsen said the recidivism rate for inmates leaving a pre-release center is around 30 percent, a number also used by the Idaho Department of Correction, but others refute the claim.

Kootenai County sheriff candidate Robert Norris said his statistics show recidivism over the long run of more than 80 percent.

Norris, a longtime law enforcement official who retired to North Idaho before entering the sheriff’s race, said a re-entry center comes with a lot of hidden costs.

“There are a lot of hidden taxes, and it will lower the quality of life,” Norris said.

He thinks the center will require calls for service that don’t exist now.

He uses Walmart as an example. The supermarket looks like an amenity on paper, he said. From a law enforcement standpoint, it requires much attention.

“It requires 150 minutes a day,” as deputies answer or respond to calls, or simply patrol the parking lot.

Having 126 inmates at the center will also raise concerns in the community, he said.

Norris thinks the answer is not to make an effort at rehabilitation during the last six months of a convict’s sentence, but to have a long-term commitment to rehabilitate.

“I am not against rehabilitation,” Norris said. “I am against waiting until the eve of their release to start it.”

Ron Nilson, president of Ground Force which employs more than 120 in Post Falls, was one of the early believers in rehabilitation when he joined forces with the local Good Samaritan program by providing jobs for former inmates. He employs a half dozen.

Nilson said that rehabilitation is a long-term commitment that starts with the inmate wanting to be rehabilitated, learn a trade and become a member of the community.

However, he doesn’t have faith in government programs, he said. Too many inmates aren’t given the tools to stay straight.

“The recidivism rate is as high as 88 percent,” Nilson said. “It should be something substantially better than that.”

The Good Sam program he said, has a success rate of better than 85 percent.

“You have to get the politics and the government out of it,” he said. “That is the answer.”

Knudtsen said the re-entry center is a pragmatic way to have inmates from North Idaho work their way back into the community by paying their own way. The department of correction requires the inmates to pay for their room and board and amenities such as laundry. Part of their paychecks go back to the center.

“Of their pay, 34 percent of their earnings go back to the state of Idaho for housing and food,” she said.

Inmates also pay $7 per week to be transported to and from their jobs, she said.

“We have to find a solution to our problem,” she said. “The expensive solution is to build a bunch more prisons. I think that’s the point the government is trying to make.”

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