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With Possible Prison Expansion Coming, How Can Idaho Slow Incarceration?

State officials estimate Idaho's prison population will reach 10,000 by 2022. (jodylehigh/Pixabay)
State officials estimate Idaho's prison population will reach 10,000 by 2022. (jodylehigh/Pixabay)
July 16, 2018

BOISE, Idaho – A $500-million-dollar prison expansion proposal is likely heading to the Idaho Legislature next year.

What else could the state do to curb its skyrocketing prison population?

One state lawmaker says the Gem State needs to address this issue before Idahoans end up behind bars. Rep. Melissa Wintrow of Boise was at the meeting when Idaho Board of Correctionmembers approved the expansion proposal. She says members recognized the state was stuck between a rock and a hard place and that this is a $500 million wake-up call.

"We've kind of kicked the can down the road so far with not going to the root causes of why people go to prison, and now we're left with putting our money in prisons instead of things like preschool, for example," she states.

Wintrow says investing in early education is crucial because literacy and education levels are directly linked to a person's chance of being incarcerated.

State officials estimate the number of incarcerated people in Idaho could rise to 10,000 by 2022. State lawmakers point out that Idaho has lower rates of crime than its neighboring states.

So does that mean the state's high incarceration rate is working? Wintrow says the dots don't connect.

She points out that the United States makes up 5 percent of the world's population and has 22 percent of the world's prison population.

And Idaho's per capita imprisonment rate is well above the national average.

"This is not a value of freedom and independence,” she states. “And we have to really drill down the numbers.

“Who are we incarcerating? The numbers of people of color and women incarcerated is on the rise. So we need to ask some better questions."

But Wintrow maintains the dots connect elsewhere. She notes a report earlier this year that found 7,000 science, technology, engineering and math jobs in Idaho went vacant in 2017.

"Rising prison population coupled with increasing number of good paying jobs going unfilled,” she points out. “We have to invest in education, we have to invest in health care if we want to produce enough skilled and healthy people to fill those jobs.

“When people don't have opportunity and they live in poverty, they're more likely to turn to drugs and ultimately crime."

Unless Gov. Butch Otter disapproves, the prison expansion proposal will be included in the state's budget, which goes before lawmakers during the 2019 session.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID