BOISE — A committee that has been studying Idaho's criminal justice system may get another four years of life.
The Senate Judiciary committee voted unanimously Wednesday to extend the existence of the Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reinvestment Oversight until 2023. It was set to expire this year. The measure now heads to the full Senate.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said he would support the motion but he would prefer if the bill contained a list of goals for the committee to tackle over the next four years.
“I think justice reinvestment has proved to be a very disappointing project, in my estimation,” he said. “We had to fix it once in the wake of some really horrendous criminal activity that was laid at the doorstep, and I think appropriately, of justice reinvestment.”
Idaho has a per-capita incarceration rate much higher than the national average, and one of the initiative's major goals has been to speed up the release onto parole of nonviolent offenders. Some in law enforcement have criticized this, saying it has led to the release of people who should still be imprisoned and who go on to commit more crimes.
Idaho's prisons are still overcrowded, and about 700 Idaho inmates are kept in private prisons in Texas because there isn't room in-state. Although lawmakers have put off the discussion this year on whether to build another prison and are instead looking at some smaller expansions of bed space, the issue is likely to come back up in the near future.
Burgoyne also said the “bifurcated process” when it comes to dealing with criminal justice issues, with work split between legislative committees and state agencies, had made things more difficult. He said the biggest problem is that lawmakers never appropriated enough money to reduce probation and parole officer caseloads or invested enough in rehabilitative efforts.
“I guess I reluctantly support moving head, but I think we have to reorder how we’re going at these issues if we’re going to make progress,” he said.
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who was the co-chairwoman of the committee last year and sponsored the bill to renew it, said she agreed with Burgoyne's criticisms.
"When we began we were emphasizing the reinvestment part and that hasn't been accomplished," she said.
One of the committee's recommendations last year was to relax mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. As Senate Judiciary debated extending the criminal justice reinvestment committee's existence, down the hall the House Judiciary committee was voting on a bill to do just that. That bill will now head to the full House.