Monday, December 15, 2008

Let's seek smart corrections solutions

By state Sen. Nicole LeFavour and state Rep. Donna Boe

Idaho’s prison population continues to grow at a great cost to our state budget and our society. A recent slowing in our state’s prison population growth has been credited to better treatment services inside and outside of our prisons. As we approach the coming legislative session, Democratic lawmakers will be looking for creative, cost-effective ways to stretch our state’s corrections budget and better serve Idaho families.

Governor Otter has ordered across-the-board cuts to help balance Idaho’s budget, but we believe targeted cuts are smarter and better for our state’s long-term finances. In particular, Idaho Democrats realize that cutting mental health and substance abuse services for short-term budget gain would create a surge in prison costs that will dwarf any immediate savings.

It is time to allow judges to use community-based, treatment-focused alternatives to mandatory minimum sentences. Current Idaho law forces a minimum prison sentence of 3 to 25 years for anyone caught with certain quantities of a controlled substance, regardless of their need for treatment and circumstances of the case. This is true even though the Idaho Department of Correction’s own data indicates that a sentence of six months to one year - followed by a period of treatment and support - is the most effective way to prevent new offenses among people whose primary problem is addiction.

We agree that people who set out to make money selling drugs should go to prison, in many cases for a long time. But for people primarily struggling with addiction, and with no history of violence, the state should not be warehousing inmates at a cost of almost $20,000 a year per person. By investing to improve treatment and prevention services, detox centers and recovery support in all parts of the state, Idaho will save money and lives and improve public safety. We will also reduce the number of inmates shipped to costly, out-of-state private prisons.

Of course, every prison sentence carries impacts for families and communities that go far beyond the term served. People who serve time close to home are better able to stay close to their families and other support. Statistics show that children of incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to someday wind up in jail themselves. We need better counseling for children of Idaho inmates. Keeping family communication open helps both parent and child, and reduces the likelihood that a child will eventually end up in jail, too. Videoconferencing can be a simple, low-cost interim way to keep families in touch.

In this tough job market, let’s also be sure our inmates have opportunities to train for better, more productive futures – and let’s be sure the options are equitable. Too often, men in Idaho’s corrections system learn trades like electrical work, plumbing and carpentry while women are relegated to training for low-wage service jobs.

Knowing that the state is facing serious budget cuts, it may be necessary to adjust Idaho’s taxes on beer, wine and liquor – some of which haven’t been raised in over 20 years. A modest increase could help ensure that Idaho meets current needs for substance abuse treatment.

To resort to short-sighted cuts in treatment services this year will mean more Idahoans end up in prison rather than in treatment and more offenders will return to prison due to lack of recovery support. Our legislature must be wise as we craft budgets and corrections policy. Bringing inmates home to better programming and family support is smart, but we can’t allow Idaho’s mental health and addiction services to be cut. Doing so will simply deepen the challenge of managing prison populations and maintaining public safety in the difficult economic year ahead.

State Rep. Donna Boe of Pocatello is currently the ranking Democrat on the house Judiciary and Rules Committee and is a member of Idaho’s Criminal Justice Commission. State Senator Nicole LeFavour of Boise served on the House Judiciary and Rules Committee for four years, where she introduced legislation to increase treatment-focused sentencing alternatives.