Idaho State Correctional Center

Inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Institution walk past a guard tower on March 24, 2016, in Boise.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho released a report Thursday detailing measures it plans to push for to reduce Idaho’s incarceration rate, including a bill to limit when potential employers can ask about an applicant’s criminal record.

The ACLU plans to unveil the Blueprint for Smart Justice Idaho on Jan. 7, the day after the start of the 2020 legislative session, and give copies to lawmakers, state agency directors, prison reform advocates and other interested groups. The Fair Chance Employment Act, which the ACLU plans to introduce during the 2020 session, would require employers to wait to ask about a candidate’s criminal background or do a criminal background check until an applicant is given a personal interview or a conditional offer of employment.

ACLU of Idaho Policy Director Kathy Griesmyer said the ability to find a job after getting out of jail or prison is directly linked to recidivism. The report notes that 71 percent of people admitted to state prison in 2017 were sent for parole or probation violations, and many are likely to violate again without a job. Griesmyer said an estimated 50 percent of applicants with criminal records are disqualified without an interview or a chance to explain the circumstances.

“More than 95 percent of inmates are released back into society,” Griesmyer said in a news release.

“For most of them, finding a job is key to staying out of prison, supporting their families and rebuilding their lives,” she said. “But right now it’s hard for many of them to get jobs because they have to check the box on the application right up front that says they have a criminal record.”

Thirteen states have adopted so-called “ban the box” laws that restrict what private employers can ask an applicant about their criminal record, according to the National Employment Law Project, and another 22 have such laws that only apply to public employers.

A 2018 study by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy found Idaho has the 13th-highest incarceration rate in the country, ahead of every neighboring state. The ACLU’s report says the number of people in prison dropped 6 percent between January 2015 and May 2016, after the Legislature passed “justice reinvestment” legislation aimed at reducing the number of parole violators sent back to prison, but it has gone up since then and is now higher than it was before those reforms passed, according to the ACLU’s report. As of Thursday, 9,406 people were in prison in Idaho, including 846 state inmates being held in county jails and 651 people in the privately run Eagle Pass Correctional Facility in Texas. This is up from 9,145 people in prison in early September and 8,708 in September 2018, according to the Idaho Department of Correction.

In 2018, the Board of Correction proposed building a new prison. This hasn’t happened yet, although lawmakers in 2019 did approve building another community re-entry center in northern Idaho and an expansion of the St. Anthony Work Camp.

The "Blueprint for Smart Justice Idaho," a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho on imprisonment in Idaho containing various proposals to reduce Idaho's incarceration rate.

The ACLU’s report looks at the prison population by offense and race. As of 2018, it says, a third of people in state prison were there for drug offenses, 21 percent for assault and 18 percent for property crimes. Fifty-eight percent were in prison for a nonviolent offense. Members of nonwhite groups are, in proportion to their numbers, far more likely to be imprisoned — the incarceration rate for black adults in Idaho is five times that for whites, while Hispanic adults are twice as likely to be imprisoned as white ones and the Native American incarceration rate is four times higher than the white one.

“The goals of the blueprint are to dramatically cut incarceration in Idaho, address racial disparities and to introduce solutions that invest in people and communities rather than in the construction of more prisons,” said ACLU of Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales. “We know these are not overnight goals, but given the high cost of incarceration to the state and our current prison overcrowding problem, we believe now is the time to start. Toward that end, we intend to lead by introducing Smart Justice legislation during the 2020 legislative session.”

The report contains numerous proposals to reduce the number of people in jails and prison, including expanding treatment for mental health and addiction, raising the felony theft threshold from $1,000 to $2,500, decriminalizing marijuana, looking for alternatives to incarceration for parole and probation violations, getting rid of cash bail, improving the state’s public defense system, and getting rid of the “persistent violator” law, under which a third felony can carry a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of life.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.