Gov signs Idaho's Justice Reinvestment legislation

Gov signs Idaho's Justice Reinvestment legislation
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has signed a new law that proponents hope will reduce the state's high incarceration rate and save money on prison spending.

The Justice Reinvestment legislation includes a wide range of tweaks to Idaho's criminal justice system. Most of the changes are focused on what happens when a person is sentenced, imprisoned or placed on parole or probation.

At the signing ceremony on Wednesday, Otter lauded the Idaho Legislature for unanimously passing the bill. He said lawmakers "recognized the wisdom" in trying to stop a projected growth in prisons and use that money elsewhere in the criminal justice system. The bill will cost $2 million next year from Idaho's general fund; proponents say it will help the state save millions by staving off the need to build a new prison.

"This is a great day, and it's a day that's going to make a lot of difference in the future of Idaho," Otter said.

The law requires that information on recidivism rates — detailing the rate at which someone convicted of a crime goes on to commit other future crimes — be included in the report that a judge normally gets on a defendant before sentencing. If the person is deemed a low risk for committing new crimes and if they are in court on a non-violent offense, the law asks judges to consider sentencing them to a community program like probation or substance abuse treatment instead of sending them to prison.

A large component of the law requires the state to do a better job at tracking and analyzing criminal justice statistics. Proponents hope that information will identify weak spots in Idaho's criminal justice system for future changes, giving lawmakers a road map for where additional funding or attention is needed.

Probation and parole officers will also be given increased training and support, and the authority to bring swift and certain sanctions on those who violate the terms of their probation. The Idaho Board of Correction will develop the matrix of sanctions, which will likely include community service, increased check-ins by a probation officer, a curfew or even a weekend in jail or house arrest.

The sanctions are supposed to reduce the amount of time — often months — that a probationer has to wait before they are seen by a judge on a probation violation charge, and hopefully, keep them from having to serve out their full prison terms.

The Justice Reinvestment project was funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice, and aided by detailed research into Idaho's current system from the Council of State Governments. The Council of State Governments found that Idaho has a relatively low crime rate and high incarceration rate compared to other states, and that the number of people in Idaho prisons grew nearly 30 percent between 2004 and 2010. More than a third of those in prison are repeat offenders.

Last year a Legislative interim committee was formed to study the numbers and come up with policy changes. Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, who was co-chair of the committee with Rep. Rich Wills, said

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, who was co-chair of the committee with Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said the bill signed Wednesday was only the first chapter of a long-term effort to improve Idaho's criminal justice system.

Wills said he anticipated that taxpayers would be able to see some measurable results from the legislation within a year, but cautioned that the effort would be a "long process."

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, who worked to bring the Justice Reinvestment project to Idaho, said the next steps for lawmakers will be informed by the data collected under the new bill, but said they could include reclassifying some crimes from misdemeanor to infraction status or other front-end reforms.