Little’s prison budget veers away from proposed $500M prison expansion

February 7, 2019
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A prison official walks through the Idaho State Correctional Institution on June 26, 2018.

BOISE — Rather than seek funding for a $500 million prison expansion, including a big new state prison, Idaho Gov. Brad Little is calling for a mix of adding minimum-security and work-release beds and focusing on improving supervision of offenders in Idaho communities next year.

“In no way are you going to hear me say that we don’t need additional prison capacity,” new state Corrections Director Josh Tewalt told the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, as he presented the budget request for Idaho’s state prison system for next year.

However, he said, “Three-quarters of the people coming into our prison system are people we have failed before.”

Tewalt said Idaho’s bursting prison system — which has about 700 inmates farmed out to two private prisons in Texas — has a big problem with returnees. “About 70 percent of the people walking through our door are failed probationers and failed parolees,” he said. When those who fail retained-jurisdiction “rider” terms and other diversion programs are added in, it comes to about 77 percent of Idaho’s prison admissions.

Not all of them really need to be taking up costly, secure prison beds, Tewalt said. Some just need treatment.

“The conversation we need to have now is where is the best place to receive that treatment,” he said. “There’s not an easy answer to that, because some people need to be in prison to get that treatment. For some people, that arrest is a rescue.”

For others, a trip back to prison means severing the vital ties to normalcy that help an offender return to being a productive citizen, like employment and connection to families.

“I think there’s definitely room for improvement in capacity to provide that treatment in the community,” Tewalt said, in response to questions from JFAC members. “Something that looks like a more secure bed than someone staying at their home … but a less secure, more effective bed that we could use to get some people the treatment they need without destabilizing anything else.”

Idaho’s state Board of Correction voted unanimously in July to recommend the $500 million prison expansion, including a new 1,510-bed state prison, the first Idaho would have built since 2000. Since then, two of the three members of that board are gone; there’s a new governor, a new state corrections director, and a new director of the Commission for Pardons & Parole.

“I have nothing but great respect for the former director, Henry Atencio, but the answer was not more beds,” said Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, JFAC co-chairman. “I think the opportunity for change in direction was needed.”

Little’s budget proposal for the Department of Correction for next year calls for spending $249.5 million in state general funds. That’s a 3.6 percent increase over this year; the department had requested a 15.2 percent increase, and that was aside from the proposal for the big new prison.

Little is calling for adding 220 minimum-security or work-release beds, by building a $12.2 million, 120-bed “Re-Entry Center” in North Idaho, and expanding the St. Anthony Work Camp by 100 beds, at a cost of $7.4 million. Those items aren’t in the prisons budget, as they’re included in the Permanent Building Fund capital budget.

Little also is recommending adding 17 new probation and parole officer positions, though the department had originally requested 34.

Tewalt told the joint budget committee on Wednesday, “If you were to give us what we initially requested, we lack the capacity to get that many people hired and trained through POST (the Peace Officer Standards and Training academy). So I think this recommendation here is wholly appropriate for what we have the capacity to bring on board.”

He said his agency also plans to focus on giving probation and parole officers more time to spend with the offenders they’re assigned to supervise. “In addition to being cops, coaches and counselors, we’ve also made them data entry specialists, UA (urinalysis) collectors, and a host of other things,” he said. “We’re interested in looking internally at how we can get those things off their plate, so we have some work to do on our end to free up their time.” He said those moves in conjunction with adding positions should “put us a lot closer to where we need to be.”

Little’s proposed corrections budget also reflects some savings from Proposition 2, the voter-approved Medicaid expansion initiative. It shows savings of $2.48 million in community-based substance abuse treatment, including $1.4 million from the general fund and $1.04 million from the state’s tobacco settlement fund. That’s money that has been spent for treatment of parolees and probationers who now would qualify for Medicaid, largely at federal expense.

In addition, the budget shows $1.4 million in savings in the Medical Services division of the prisons budget, all in state general funds. That’s for in-patient hospital costs for parolees and probationers who would be newly Medicaid-eligible.

JFAC members noted that Little’s budget doesn’t include any funding for the $7.4 million that had been requested for next year to cover the cost of county and out-of-state housing of Idaho inmates, due to overflowing prisons. Tewalt said those costs aren’t going away, but they fluctuate depending on offender counts. So Little’s budget approach is to seek funding for those through a supplemental appropriation during next year’s legislative session, after the numbers are known.

The budget also seeks funding for something Tewalt said is top-priority for him, boosting starting pay for correctional officers. “We have 66 correctional officer vacancies today,” he said. “Our turnover rate is hovering around 23 percent for correctional officers.”

Tewalt said the state’s correctional officer starting pay of $15 an hour doesn’t compete with police departments; it competes with other entry-level jobs, and in a booming economy, that’s hard to do. “My view of being more competitive is simply making it so they can afford to stay with us, and that’s really what we’re talking about.” He’s hoping to bring starting pay up to $16.50 per hour.

Though Little didn’t recommend the full amount the department requested for that, Tewalt said when combined with the governor’s proposal to fund 3 percent merit raises, “We feel pretty comfortable we’re going to be able to make a significant impact with our staff with the money that’s appropriated here.”

Youngblood, who’s carried the Corrections budget for the past six years, said he’s excited about the department’s new direction. “Do we have a long ways to go? Absolutely, but we need to get there,” he said.

“The other piece of this that’s critical is policy,” Youngblood said, adding that he believes lawmakers will take some steps this year toward sentencing reform. “If we don’t start, we’re never going to get there,” he said.

JFAC is scheduled to start setting state agency budgets on Feb. 15; the Department of Correction budget is scheduled to be set Feb. 21.

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