1 in 7 Idaho prison inmates are in on drug convictions

Prisoners are seen at the Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise on June 26. The Idaho Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee hopes to have significant recommendations for lawmakers to combat the state’s prison growth when they convene in January. Brian Myrick / Idaho Press


BOISE — Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor told state lawmakers Tuesday that no one goes to prison for a first-time drug possession charge, saying a more typical picture is an addict who runs up three, four or five convictions before authorities give up and incarcerate him.

But then the lawmakers reviewed figures from Idaho’s prisons showing that currently, 1,245 state prisoners are behind bars for drug crimes alone, nearly half of them for possession; 51.3 percent of them are in for a first offense, and 24.5 percent are in for their second offense. Also, 505 — 40.6 percent — had no prior felony record. Idaho’s prison population has been soaring; there are 8,646 inmates behind bars today, and that figure is expected to reach 9,000 by June 2019 and 10,000 by July 2021.

Lawmakers came away saying they need to get to the bottom of this and figure out how to address it — and that it may affect the state’s proposal to build a new prison.

“We’ve got to find the right balance,” said Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa.

“Obviously, what we’re doing here has a lot of ramifications for some of the requests that the Department of Correction is making with the new prison,” said House Judiciary Chairman Lynn Luker, R-Boise,the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight Committee. “It’s a big deal.”

The panel plans to meet again in August; its hope is to have significant recommendations for lawmakers when they convene in January.

The lawmakers invited Taylor to present a prosecutor’s perspective as they wrestle with the state’s prison growth, which has prompted the state Board of Correction to call for a $500 million prison expansion, including a new 1,510-bed state prison. Idaho’s inmate population is soaring, and every state prison is at or above capacity, even as hundreds of state inmates are being housed in county jails or out of state.

“This is a major crisis in our state,” Corrections Director Henry Atencio told the panel. “We don’t have enough beds in our prisons.”

Fifty-three percent of Idaho’s inmates currently serving prison terms — not counting short-term “riders” who do short stints in prison before going on probation — are in for a non-violent offense, Atencio said, “either a drug crime, a property crime, or an alcohol crime. That’s kind of what our makeup looks like today.”

Taylor said he hears all the time that inmates are incarcerated on drug possession charges, but said he can’t remember ever “recommending somebody go to prison on a first-time possession conviction.”

Nevertheless, that’s what Idaho’s state prison statistics show. “I’ve asked my staff to dig deeper into this to make sure that we’re providing an accurate picture of who makes up our inmate population,” Atencio said. “My research indicated that they do not have multiple felony charges. So we need to reconcile that with the prosecutors, and make sure that we are talking apples to apples.”

Taylor, without providing any numbers, said what he typically sees is a scenario in which a first-time offender is charged with a felony for possessing methamphetamine or heroin, and they get probation. “Then lo and behold, they pick up their second possession charge,” he told lawmakers. “For whatever reason, these are very difficult drugs to kick the habit.”

Often, they’ll get a second chance at probation, he said, but then they come back with another felony charge, perhaps a theft charge, because they’re stealing to support their drug habit. They may go to prison on a retained jurisdiction “rider” for a period of time for that conviction, then get released and get caught again for possession and/or theft.

“If you could eliminate drugs and alcohol, you would put me out of a job,” Taylor said. He said “probably 70 percent of my cases … have a nexus to alcohol or drugs.”

“They are (addicts), they are making poor choices,” Taylor said. “We’re trying everything in our powers to get them rectified and we can’t do it, primarily because they haven’t fought off the addiction.”

Lawmakers on the panel were stunned by Taylor’s comments, asking why Idaho doesn’t try to intervene with the offender the first time, rather than letting it escalate into multiple charges.

“I’m absolutely supportive of identifying the resources to help beat the addiction,” Taylor said. “I would love to see some secured facilities, where these individuals aren’t allowed to leave.”

Drug treatment resources are limited in Idaho, Sara Thomas, administrative director of Idaho’s courts, told the legislators. She said that’s been among the factors that have kept Idaho’s successful drug courts from expanding further.

Thomas said prosecutors may be thinking of offenders with multiple charges, rather than multiple convictions.

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he thought that explained the discrepancy between Taylor’s comments and the prison figures — that prosecutors plea-bargain multiple charges down to a single one. That would still leave an offender headed to prison for a single conviction.

Taylor said, “We are 33rd in the country for illicit drug use. We’re doing something right.”

Joe Andreoli, a longtime police officer who worked six years as an undercover narcotics detective and currently heads the Treasure Valley Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the lawmakers, “These dangers will multiply if Idaho starts moving along with national trends of softening on drug crimes. … Just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t make it right.”

He said, “We have good people moving to Idaho, right now we have bad people moving out of Idaho, going to states where it’s easier to be a criminal. That’s what we want. … That shows that what we’re doing is working.”

Andreoli said, “The cartels will not come to the state of Idaho because of our strict drug laws.” He also warned of “the hundreds of thousands of gang members that will flock to our communities in Idaho once it is realized that Idaho is softening on drug crimes. If we think that there are not criminal entities and gangs that are waiting for that day, we are sadly mistaken.”

Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, said after the meeting, “The point is that Idaho has either the lowest or one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the West. On the other hand, most of our people in prison are there for drug-related problems, which are nonviolent, and yet we are locking up 40 percent more people per capita than Utah.”

Lawmakers need to find answers, he said.

Thomas told the lawmakers that the courts are re-examining Idaho’s sentencing criteria, which date back to the 1970s, and hope to bring forward suggestions for changes in the fall.

They’d also like to expand Idaho’s problem-solving courts, which include specialized programs for high-risk offenders that run for one to two years, and include intensive treatment and supervision. The specialized courts focus on felony drug offenders, veterans, offenders with mental health issues, misdemeanor DUI courts and more; there are 71 in total, with counties that host them sharing in their costs.

“They do produce positive outcomes,” Thomas said.

Bonner County wanted to start a felony drug court last year, he said, but was unable to because of lack of funding to staff it. The state Department of Correction requested funding for 24 new probation and parole officers, but got funding for only 12.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the panel’s co-chairwoman, said she hopes lawmakers can “find something to stop that second step, the bounce-up again to a second crime.” At the first offense, she said, “we’re trying to figure out what we can do to stop them at that point.”

Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I think we need more information for sure, but I tend to believe the prisons’ numbers — they just had really detailed numbers, compared to the prosecutors.”

Zollinger said he expects the panel to recommend big changes in Idaho’s sentencing laws.

“As long as we’re keeping the violent criminals locked up, I think the police and prosecutors should be happy with the changes that we make,” he said. “We need to address it now.”