Idaho Prisons Mulling 20 Percent Budget Boost

Aug 8, 2018

Top officials with the Idaho Department of Correction are considering telling state lawmakers they need a nearly 20 percent budget increase to fund beds, staff and services for the state's growing prison population.

"This budget really is the cost of today's philosophical approach to crime and public safety in Idaho. That's the reality we're in," Henry Atencio, head of Idaho's prisons, told the three-member state Board of Correction on Tuesday.

The board was presented with two different options during its lengthy monthly meeting, with the more expensive proposal including a request for $19.7 million for a 100-bed expansion at St. Anthony Work Camp and building a new community re-entry center in north Idaho.

In total, that option would jump the Department of Correction's budget to $321.3 million for fiscal year 2019-2020. That's up from the current $272.2 million, or about 18 percent more than this current fiscal year.

If approved by the board, it'll be the biggest budget request the prisons agency has sought from the Republican-dominant Legislature in more than a decade.

The board must finalize its budget proposal by early September. It will then need to find approval from the Legislature when it gathers in Boise for the 2019 session in January, as well as eventual approval from the governor — a top seat that is currently up for grabs in the upcoming November election.

In the past, particularly in the years following the Great Recession, the department has requested more modest funding spikes. For example, during the last budget-setting cycle, the department asked lawmakers for a 7 percent budget increase.

Yet with prison officials warning the board on Tuesday the state's inmate population will likely reach 9,000 by the end of the year in a state that currently has 7,800 beds, board members are scrambling to meet the need.

The board also discussed a separate budget proposal that left out the $19.7 million expansion. It also included big-ticket items such as those in the more expensive option, ranging from $8.8 million to boost correction officers' pay and help retain experienced staffers to $8.4 million to house inmates in county jails and in facilities out of state. Another $3.2 million has been proposed to hire 30 new parole and probation officers.

The cheaper option would boost the state's prisons budget by 10.8 percent, totaling $301.6 million.

Half of the Idaho inmates sentenced over the past year were convicted of drug offenses, while 20 percent of recent inmates were convicted of violent crimes.

Parole violators who committed new felony crimes also make up a large portion of the incomers.

The state has signed a contract with a Texas prison to house up to 670 Idaho inmates at the end of August. Another facility in Texas already is holding 306 inmates, who will transfer to the prison