Reduce Idaho’s prison population by focusing on rehabilitation

It’s past time for state lawmakers to decide how to handle Idaho’s overcrowded prisons.

More than 9,400 people are serving time in the state’s detention centers, but the state has less than 7,000 beds.

The Idaho Department of Corrections has tried to lessen the overcrowding by outsourcing it — first to county jails, and then to facilities out of state. In 2018, 250 men were sent to a private prison in Texas. Today, there are more than 600 being sent out of state.

Now the Department of Corrections is working on a deal that would move those 600 people — and possibly 600 more — to a private facility in Colorado.

Corrections Director Josh Tewalt says the move will relieve pressure on county jails and is only temporary.

Lawmakers have several long-term options available. One option is to simply make more room. A report by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee suggests Idaho could save millions by building new facilities here instead of sending people out of state. It’s as valid a starting place as any. One might even say it’s novel considering Idaho’s prison spending has only accelerated in the last 25 years.

But more room for prisoners means more prisoners eventually will fill and overcrowd the extra space until lawmakers address why Idaho’s prison population keeps rising in the first place. We require a change to the priorities our representatives have historically been reluctant to embrace.

In recent years, Idaho’s policy on corrections has focused on punishment instead of rehabilitation.

Almost 30 years ago, the Legislature passed mandatory minimum sentencing laws in an attempt to scare people out of using or selling drugs. It backfired. Instead, an increasing percentage of Idaho’s prison population is made up of nonviolent drug offenders. For the last three years, state lawmakers have tried to repeal the law, and they’ve all failed. Hopefully, the fourth time’s the charm this year.

The state can also take steps to ensure those who have served their sentences don’t end up behind bars again. An opportunity to do so is already on the table. Idaho Falls Sen. Dave Lent and Rep. Ilana Rubel are working on a bipartisan bill called the Clean Slate Act. The bill would seal the records of released felons and make it easier for them to find jobs and places to live. It’s a good faith effort to make sure people don’t continue to serve a sentence outside of prison.

Finally, lawmakers must close the widening gap between education and prison funding.

Right now prison funding outpaces education funding by two to one. The system is failing to equip Idahoans with the tools they need to potentially avoid desperate circumstances — and then punishing them when they don’t.

If this is the path lawmakers want to stay on, building more and larger prisons makes sense. A more holistic and empathetic path is necessary if they want to make a positive change that lasts. It’s time for our representatives to choose which path they want to walk.