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Justice Reinvestment group has plenty to consider

Rebecca Boone, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Idaho's prisons are full and getting fuller, and about half of those behind bars are repeat offenders. Now a group of lawmakers is hoping to arrest the trend using research, recommendations from criminal justice experts and smart policy changes.

The Interim Justice Reinvestment Committee has support from both political parties and the help of a working group made up of judges, attorneys, corrections officials, substance abuse experts and others. But even with that level of buy-in, the committee could have difficulty in bringing change to a state that tries to keep a tight rein on spending and has rejected sentence-shortening programs like "good time" credits for inmates who don't cause trouble in prison.

Still, nothing is off the table, said Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, an attorney who serves on the committee.

"We did have good time in the past, and it did go away, but this Legislature that we have now is the one that's going to be looking at what we're trying to do," Rice said. "We're going to look at everything."

Idaho had a good time credit rule until 1986, when former Sen. Denton Darringon, a tough-on-crime Republican from Declo who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than two decades, pushed a bill to replace it with the Unified Sentencing Act. At the time, Darrington said judges were frustrated because the rule created confusion surrounding how much time felons would actually have to serve, and it gave offenders another opening for appeals.

The Unified Sentencing Act allows judges to create two-part sentences — the first portion is a fixed period during which the inmate isn't eligible for parole. The second is indeterminate, during which the inmate can seek parole. Additionally, the Legislature has set mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. For instance, a drug dealer convicted for a second time in a 10-year span must serve at least three years in addition to any sentence imposed by the court.

The number of people incarcerated in Idaho grew nearly 30 percent between 2004 and 2010. The state spends $219 million on corrections — an amount that has grown by 76 percent since fiscal year 2004, when the appropriation was $124 million, according to the Council of State Governments' Justice Center.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter hopes the Justice Reinvestment committee can help determine how to spend that money wisely. "One of the very core reasons that we're doing this is to figure out how we can do things better without just throwing more and more money at it," Otter said earlier this month.

Idaho qualified for about a quarter-million dollars in grants for the Justice Reinvestment effort, with the money coming from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Council of State Governments' Justice Center. The CSG Justice Center provides technical assistance, research and analysis, giving the interim committee and working group the data they need to come up with policy ideas.

Idaho already does many things right, according to the initial research by the CSG Justice Center. The state's problem-solving courts are regarded as successes, with the Bureau of Justice Assistance designating Bonneville County's mental health court as one of five national learning sites for other mental health courts and Ada County's domestic violence court as one of three "mentor" courts for the rest of the nation.

"This is a really good opportunity for us to get a better handle on what's working well, what's not working well and what we can improve," Rice said. "What we're looking for is overall improvement."

Several states have completed Justice Reinvestment methods and have come up with varying policy changes to reduce costs and incarcerations. Texas adopted recommendations to increase the number of prison beds in substance abuse and mental health treatment programs by 5,200, and to add more diversion programs for parolees who violate their probation without actually breaking any new law. Texas officials say the changes mitigated projected prison growth by about 9,000 inmates, saving as much as $443 million, according to CSG.

Oklahoma mandated supervision for every adult released from prison. North Carolina began requiring mandatory supervision for all felony parolees, an increase of about 15,000 offenders each year.

Chloe Cockburn, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that some states have considered the program successful if they believe they've stopped or reduced growth in prison populations. The goal should be to shrink those populations, she said, and to do that, the Justice Reinvestment program has to include advocates for populations most likely to have high incarceration rates.

"The problem is when we talk about, 'What do we do about this?' there's not always a lot of local input," she said.

Rice said he'd like to see the committee search for any gaps in programs.

"Anytime you're switching from one supervision mode, from one set of eyes to the next, there's a chance to drop the ball. And it can be that our programs, from presentencing, to rider programs, to prison programs, to programs on supervision and release, don't hook up well," Rice said. "We want people to succeed on probation and parole and not come back into the system."