Twin Falls jail in ‘crisis’ as felony cases increase
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — As Twin Falls expands as a regional hub, the jail and prosecutor’s desk are overflowing with felons and felony cases.
The county prosecuting attorney’s office is on track to deal with an estimated 900 felony cases this year, nearly double what the office saw 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, the Twin Falls jail population is exploding, in what Sheriff Tom Carter describes as a “crisis.” The 224-bed jail has housed as many as 270 inmates at a time over the past year; on July 18, the facility held 253, with 42 others scattered around to other jails across the state.
Some of the increase in felony cases and jail population is due to regional growth and the uptick in passers-through that comes with it. But that may not tell the whole story. Some county officials also point to the broader issue of prison overcrowding throughout the state as a contributing factor.
“Everything’s coming to a head right now,” said jail administrator Capt. Doug Hughes. “There’s a lot of dynamics to it that are creating the problem.”
Growth in Twin Falls County — and the state of Idaho as a whole — doesn’t show signs of slowing anytime soon. As the population continues to increase, crowding in local and statewide jails and prisons will become an even more urgent issue.
Jail crowding is a relatively new problem in Twin Falls County. In 2016, the jail held a steady population of about 180 people, with a high of roughly 200. That number started to climb toward the end of last summer.
The exact reason why is difficult to pinpoint, though Hughes and other county officials have some suggestions.
The spike in felony cases isn’t helping, they say: more than 80 percent of Twin Falls inmates today are felons, who typically must stay at the jail longer and are held under a higher bond. In 2015, the average length of time an inmate stayed at the jail was 12 days. Today, the average stay is 24 days.
In the past, specialty courts — which offer alternative sentencing options for nonviolent drug addicts, veterans, and others — have been effective in keeping the jail population in check. But with a skyrocketing number of felony cases and limited space available, these programs are no longer enough to keep the jail under capacity.
County prosecutor Grant Loebs has seen a consistent rise in the number of felony cases filed by his office over the past decade. But that number went up dramatically - roughly 20 percent - between 2016 and 2017.
In 2008, the prosecutor’s office filed 475 felony cases. This year, they’re on track to file roughly 900 cases, said Loebs — nearly a 100 percent increase from a decade ago.
Across Idaho, prisons and jails are stuffed to the brim. As state leaders send hundreds of inmates out of state and consider spending $500 million on prison expansions, some state leaders have discussed declaring a “criminal justice crisis.”
And with a lack of room in state prisons, Hughes said some state inmates have had to stay at the county jail longer. Some have remained in the Twin Falls facility as long as 90 days after they were sentenced.
Loebs also sees statewide prison crowding as a source of his office’s case overload. Because of crowding, he said, some convicted felons are spending less time in prison than they would have otherwise. Many of the cases his office files are against repeat offenders — people already on probation or parole.
The convergence of factors — a crowded jail, filled with higher-level offenders than its construction originally intended — has created an “agitated” atmosphere for both inmates and jail staff, Hughes said.
“Something needs to be done. We can’t just keep operating the way we are,” Hughes said. “Jail’s a bad enough place.”
With more felony filings comes a need for more resources across the judicial system. The prosecutor’s office has requested three new employee positions this year: a felony attorney, a support staff member and an additional victim witness coordinator.
The public defender’s office also requested two additional staff members — one attorney and one support staff — after receiving two new employees last year, commissioners said.
“As this office goes, the court system goes, the jail goes, the need for judges, the need for public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers.all of that just expands,” Loebs said.
Looming above the overcrowding issue is the possibility of building a new, larger jail in Twin Falls County. But questions of when, where, and what that would look like remain unanswered.
The Twin Falls County Commission hopes the public will help come up with some answers. The board recently accepted applications for a citizen’s committee to discuss expansion of the judicial complex, which includes the jail, courtrooms, and space for other legal offices and services.
The committee will have nine members, ideally with three from each of the three districts in Twin Falls County. It will also have five ad hoc members, including representatives from the county’s legal team, the sheriff’s office, and the court system. Together, they will explore needs, costs and funding mechanisms for a new judicial complex.
County officials close to the problem largely agree that the biggest question is not whether the jail needs to expand. It’s when and how.
If approved this year, a new facility could be built within the next three years or so. It’s estimated that construction of the new complex would cost $200 per square foot for the courts section and $400 per square foot for the jail, not including other infrastructure or equipment.
A county report released last summer projected that a total of 65,000 gross square feet of courthouse space and 79,178 gross square feet of jail space will be necessary to accommodate the growing population of Twin Falls over the next 30 years. And even those numbers may be low estimates, said Commissioner Don Hall.
The current judicial building, which includes six courtrooms and other offices, is 25,298 gross square feet, and the jail is 27,000 gross square feet — meaning that, even if the county decides to add on to the existing buildings rather than constructing entirely new ones, both will need significant additions.
A new judicial complex would require asking the public for a bond, as the money in the county reserves wouldn’t be enough to cover the entire project.
If voters reject the bond, the county will need to get creative in finding beds for inmates in the short-term. Right now, jail officials are exploring the possibility of buying temporary forms of housing to supplement the existing jail space until the county comes up with the funds for a new or larger facility.
Adding a layer of urgency to the matter is the high cost of housing inmates out of the county. There are about 50 Twin Falls inmates in jails around the state on any given day.
The county budgeted roughly $100,000 this year for the cost of housing excess inmates in other counties — an expense that includes the cost of transporting the inmates, sometimes hundreds of miles, as well as fees paid to the other counties. Carter estimates that the actual yearly cost will end up being closer to $1 million.
“The only answer to this dilemma is we’re going to have to expand our jail,” Carter said. “If we don’t expand, we’re going to run up right past the expansion costs for housing outside the county.”
Carter said Twin Falls inmates have been housed as far away as Nez Perce County. Those long trips can require additional employee time, gas money, and overtime pay — plus the estimated $50 to $75 per day that counties charge for each bed.
The county also has a contract to lease 25 beds at the Jerome County Jail, an arrangement that costs Twin Falls upwards of $500,000 a year.
These housing costs, Twin Falls commissioners say, are perhaps the most significant and immediate issue that’s come out of the jail crowding situation.
As Commissioner Terry Kramer put it: “The out-of-county is really a killer.”
The choice, then, may be between building an expensive new facility now, or waiting 10 years and paying additional costs to house inmates in the meantime.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to pay one way or the other,” Hall said. “We’re either going to pay by expanding our facilities and having a better, more conducive environment to do business...or we’re going to pay money to house them somewhere else outside our community.”
Commissioner Jack Johnson, who is spearheading the commissioners’ exploration of jail and courthouse expansion, put it more directly.
“If we’re going to drop a million a year on housing, it would be very nice to invest that in our community instead of other communities,” Johnson said.
If the county does decide to build a new facility sooner rather than later, it won’t be an immediate solution. A new jail and courthouse would take at least two to three years to build, and would require significant planning before construction.
The county report estimated that, to sufficiently accommodate the growing inmate population over the next 30 years, a new jail would need up to 400 beds.
But Hughes and the commissioners now fear those numbers may be outdated.
“You look at the population and how things have grown around Twin Falls and I don’t think we’ve put into perspective exactly how much is this going to increase over the next couple years,” Hughes said. “We can take current information and the past couple years of information, but we can’t project where this is going to lead or where the tidal wave is going to stop.”
In the meantime, options are limited for keeping the number of inmates down, Hughes said, especially as the high percentage of felons in the facility poses difficult questions about who can and should be released to free up space.
“As that population goes, you’ve really got to weigh: can you cut somebody loose on a felony and still offer a safe side to the community?” Hughes said. “And the argument is probably not. So we’re kind of in between a rock and a hard place.”
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com