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Idaho county leaders seek increased state reimbursement amid rising jail overcrowding issues

Commissioners want the Idaho Department of Correction to pay counties more to house people who have been convicted and sentenced for crimes, but for whom there is no room in state prisons


Inmates sleep in a cell in the medium custody section of the Ada County Jail in October.

Sarah A. Miller/TNS

By Ian Max Stevenson
The Idaho Statesman

ADA, Idaho — After narrowly losing on a ballot initiative to expand the Ada County Jail, Ada County leaders are asking for the state to increase the reimbursement rate the Sheriff’s Office receives for housing state prisoners.

As Ada County has grown, the population of people imprisoned at the Ada County Jail has increased, to the point that the jail’s population is often higher than can be housed in beds, forcing people to sleep in cots on the floor.

To pay for an expansion, the Ada County Commission chose to put the matter to voters as a bond issue, which requires two-thirds of voters to vote yes. The measure received support from 65.8% of voters, according to results from the Ada County Elections Office.

The commissioners did not pursue another option available to them, called a lease-purchase, which requires only a majority.

Now, the commissioners want the Idaho Department of Correction to pay counties more to house people who have been convicted and sentenced for crimes, but for whom there is no room in state prisons.

“A big portion of the overcrowding in our jail is because of IDOC inmates,” Commissioner Rod Beck told local lawmakers on Nov. 13 , noting that there’s an average of 140 state prisoners in the jail every day. “If those inmates were not in our jail, we wouldn’t be overcrowded.”

The jail averages 1,008 people a day, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office. It takes an average of 47 days for the Department of Correction to transfer people newly convicted of felonies from the jail to a prison, according to a spokesperson, Jeff Ray.

Ray said the department prioritizes transfers based on a variety of criteria, including mental health or medical issues that need attention and the dates of upcoming hearings.

Beck said he wants the Legislature to increase the reimbursement amount to cover the local jail’s expenses.

After people incarcerated at the jail are convicted and sentenced for felonies, they enter the custody of the Department of Correction . But they often linger in the jail for days before the department picks them up.

People convicted of misdemeanors often serve time in the local jail, too. Misdemeanor-only convictions do not serve state-prison sentences.

On Nov. 16 , the Ada County Jail had 112 people ready to be transported to state prisons, according to a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, Patrick Orr .

Under state law, Idaho counties are required to house people sentenced to prison until they are transported. Counties are reimbursed $55 per day to cover the costs of each person. After seven days, that rises to $75 per day.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, it costs $117.34 on average to house a person, Orr said, meaning that the $75 reimbursement rate covers about 64% of the jail’s costs for each incarcerated person, and the $55 covers less than half. In fiscal year 2022, the state prison paid Ada County $3.8 million, Orr said.

Would higher reimbursement affect the need for a bond?

Because funding for the jail is managed by the Ada County Commission , it’s unclear how higher reimbursement rates in the past could have affected the need for bonding.

Money to operate the jail comes from the county’s general fund, and revenue generated at the jail goes back into that fund, Orr said. He said the average amount per day the county receives from the Department of Correction for each incarcerated person is $72, and that an additional $45 per day — to get closer to the $117 cost per person for running the jail — would bring in an additional $2.4 million per year.

If successive county commissions had then saved that money exclusively for a jail expansion, it would have taken 20 years to save the $49 million the county asked voters for.

In 2019, the Sheriff’s Office took the Department of Correction to court, saying the state was unfairly “warehousing” its prisoners in the county’s jail.

Two years later, when the COVID-19 pandemic had reduced the jail’s population, then-Sheriff Stephen Bartlett withdrew the case.

“While we knew a return to historical jail population was coming, we decided to keep working together on solutions instead of fighting in court,” Orr told the Statesman by email. “We know we will always have IDOC inmates in our facility, and they do create some revenue for the county to offset jail costs. We are going to continue to work with IDOC on problem solving and maintaining a good working relationship.”

Ray told the Statesman by email that the Department of Correction has added more than 600 new beds since 2019, and that there is funding available for 1,200 more.

The state is paying to house nearly 600 incarcerated people at a prison in Eloy, Arizona , he said.

Ray added that the agency and Gov. Brad Little requested money to construct a “secure, forensic mental health facility” for people “categorized as dangerously mentally ill,” but that the Legislature did not approve the funding.

“We understand the frustrations our partners at Ada County are feeling because we’re facing the same challenge,” Ray said, noting that the state is growing quickly. “However, adding beds is only part of the answer. In the long term, we need to reduce the demand for beds by addressing the issues that fuel crime in our communities. Doing so will require innovation and investment on all levels of government.”

Why did the county pursue bonding?

At its meeting with local lawmakers, a legislator asked the commissioners why they had chosen to bring forward a bond, which requires the highest threshold to pass.

“I just really felt that the bond is set out in the Idaho Constitution, it’s the most constitutional way to get the broadest amount of support,” said Commissioner Ryan Davidson , adding that the county “strongly” considered pursuing the lease option.

Tom Dayley said the state could amend the constitution if it wants to, but that until then, the best course is the one laid out in the constitution.

Beck said he would support changing the requirements for bonding to a “graduated scale” that would require different thresholds depending on voter turnout.

Davidson also asked lawmakers to look at changing sentencing requirements, since it’s state laws and state judges who decide who should be incarcerated.

“I hope that the Legislature can maybe take a look at sentence lengths and mandatory minimums and things like that,” Davidson said. “Anecdotally, I feel that maybe sentences for a lot of different crimes and probation terms feel excessively long. I hope that we can study that issue.”

He added that new technology has made it easier to track people in custody, even while they are outside the jail.

About 2,000 people are supervised in Ada County outside of the jail, through programs like pretrial release, alternative sentencing, the sheriff’s labor detail, misdemeanor probation and a community transition center.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder , R- Boise , told the Statesman that mandatory sentencing requirements are a “mainstay conservative value” that law enforcement and prosecutors generally oppose, though he said some programs have been successful at diverting people charged with nonviolent crimes into counseling.

Winder said he plans to look into what delays the state from picking up incarcerated people, but increasing the reimbursement rate “doesn’t really solve the problem” for the counties.

At a public forum with members of the American Association of Retired Persons Monday , Gov. Brad Little said a lot of the overcrowding issue statewide can be attributed to substance abuse issues.

“If I didn’t have substance abuse problems, I’d have lots of room in my jails,” Little said.

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