Lawmakers set prisons budget with 3.8% increase, with no funding for big new prison

February 23, 2019
Idaho State Correctional Institution, Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

BOISE — In a series of unanimous votes, legislative budget writers on Thursday set a budget for the state Department of Correction for next year that comes to $246.4 million in state general funds, a 3.8 percent increase from this year — and that doesn’t call for building a big new state prison.

“I think it’s on target,” said Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “We don’t believe the idea is more beds. It’s keeping them from going back into the system.”

The budget amount is very close to Gov. Brad Little’s recommendation, which called for a 3.6 percent increase in state general funds. The difference is almost entirely due to lawmakers’ different approach to funding state employee benefits in next year’s budget, in which they declined to follow Little’s recommendation to draw down burgeoning reserves for a one-time savings on health insurance. That made a $1.2 million difference in the Corrections budget.

The budget shows some substantial savings in Idaho’s Department of Correction due to the voter-approved Medicaid expansion initiative. Those savings next year come to $3.3 million in state general funds, and $4.34 million in total funds. A big chunk of that — $1.7 million in state general funds and $2.6 million in total funds — comes because 93 percent of probationers and parolees will become eligible for Medicaid through the expansion to cover their community-based substance abuse treatment, rather than having the Corrections budget cover that cost. Additional savings come in the medical services division of the budget, where state general fund costs will drop by $1.6 million.

The budget also covers adding 17 new staffers in probation and parole, including 10 new officers and seven administrative staff. The idea is to reduce the administrative workload on the officers, for things like data entry and urinalysis, to allow them to focus on the offenders they supervise. JFAC provided the allocation for the staffing increase on a one-time basis, with the department directed to come back next September to present a plan for how it will handle the increase long-term.

“We want to provide the director some vision and room to do that,” said Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, one of a bipartisan working group of JFAC members who helped craft the budget.

The department had originally requested 34 new staffers in that area, but new Corrections Director Josh Tewalt said that was likely more than they could get hired and trained. Though lawmakers approved 12 additional probation and parole officers two years ago, the department has struggled to fill the positions, with vacancies running between six and 35 since then. As of Feb. 2, there are 215 probation and parole officers in Idaho.

JFAC fully funded the governor’s request for a $2.3 million boost to correctional officer pay, which currently starts at $15 per hour. The department had 66 correctional officer vacancies two weeks ago and has been seeing 23 percent turnover.

The budget also quadruples the funding for electronic monitoring, which Tewalt wants to make more use of in lieu of incarceration for certain offenders; and for the first time in several years, it would provide full funding to bring Idaho’s prison system into compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, including for screenings and audits. Failing to comply with that law threatened federal grants Idaho prisons have been receiving and also posed legal liability for the state, lawmakers said.

Wintrow said, “I do think it is a matter of safety and liability in the institutions, so I do feel strongly that we should be funding this.” Legislative budget analyst Jared Hoskins identified funds that could be shifted within the existing budget to cover those costs, so the move didn’t increase the overall budget.

One thing the budget doesn’t fund: bringing back the 700 Idaho prisoners now being housed at private prisons in Texas for lack of cell space in Idaho.

“I can’t just wave a wand and go, ‘They’re coming back,’ because there’s no place to put them,” Youngblood said. “It’s setting the stage for the new director to put into place his thoughts,” on everything from increasing community drug treatment to ramping up probation and parole supervision to expanding the use of electronic monitoring.

“Those are all processes that take time,” Youngblood said.

At the core of Idaho’s prison problem is recidivism, offenders who keep returning, Youngblood said. He said he’s heard that from the courts, the state police, prosecutors, and participants in Idaho’s justice reinvestment initiative.

At the department’s budget hearing on Feb. 7, Tewalt told JFAC, “Three-quarters of the people coming into our prison system are people we have failed before.”

Wintrow said, “We’ve heard throughout … the need for investing in community-based solutions. I think this budget does a lot to focus on that.”

Gov. Little did recommend funding for some new minimum-security beds, in the form of a new $12.2 million 120-bed community re-entry center in North Idaho and a 100-bed expansion of the St. Anthony Work Camp, at $7.4 million; those proposals aren’t in the Corrections budget because they’re in the state’s Permanent Building Fund budget, the budget for major capital projects for the state. That budget is scheduled to be set March 5.

The corrections budget still needs approval from both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but budget bills rarely change once they’re set by the joint committee.