Printed on: February 18, 2013

Bill would ruin lives, create criminals

Twin Falls Times-News

Lee Heider introduced a bill this session that has the potential to destroy the lives of countless young people. It has the potential to grow our prison population like a farmer watering a field.

If Heider gets his way, young people who are convicted of felonies or violent misdemeanors or who spent a year or more in prison will not be allowed back in school. Ever.

To hear him talk, the decision was based on a couple of bad seeds who returned to school after time in the correction system, trafficked drugs and got two girls pregnant. The bill ignores that Idaho's public school system already has an entire network of alternative programs designed to help these troubled students turn their life around.

Visit Magic Valley High School in Twin Falls or Cassia High School in Burley and you'll hear heart wrenching success stories that far outweigh the story of the two bad boys that Heider has so often repeated while pedaling this law.

Already, schools evaluate students who have been convicted of felonies, spent time in jail or committed violent crimes. It's at that moment, that someone trained to do so gives a recommendation to the school board whether or not that individual would be a danger to teachers or other students. Twin Falls School District Superintendent Wiley Dobbs said there is a program in place for area youth to earn their way back into school. It's called the WISE program. The program starts with community service. The students load on a bus every morning and head to various community service projects.

"It teaches them they need to give back," Dobbs said. "It's a way for them to atone for what they did and they also get a look at what their life's work could be. It's respectable work, but it's very, very hard."

Like any system, there are failures and students who are given a second chance who don't deserve it as Heider's anecdote tells us. But what about the countless others who could turn their lives around?

Why doesn't Heider trust school boards and principals and counselors to do their jobs? Why tie their hands? Why turn our backs on young people who could become productive members of society with the proper guidance?

Heider's bill offers no alternative to students after the door is slammed in their face. Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke told the Idaho Education News last week that between 40 and 45 percent of dropouts wind up in the correction system.

In response, Heider told Idaho Education News that he hadn't discussed the bill with Department of Correction officials. "The view of the correctional institution is really the least of our concern," he said.

It should be his concern. It should be the concern of every taxpayer. According to the Idaho Department of Correction website, the average cost per day to house an inmate in Idaho prisons was $52.22 for fiscal year 2010. The average offender cost per day for someone on probation or parole is $4.

Ensuring that young people, who have already been introduced to a life of crime, are left out in the cold without an education or the job opportunities that education is a warm Petri dish for recidivism.

"What we know intuitively is education goes a long way with saving troubled kids," said Monty Prow of the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections.

Heider said he's less concerned about saving troubled kids than he is with protecting the other students in schools.

"I know that sounds harsh," he said. But, he added, "I'd rather protect the thousand in every school than the one that comes out of prison."

(Heider pulled the bill Wednesday, hours before it was scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee, saying he realized language in the legislation could create unintended consequences for a broader spectrum of young people who get into trouble. He hasn't decided if he will amend the bill this session, or pull it permanently and try again next year.)