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Idaho again leads country for female incarceration

Idaho State Correctional Institution
Scott Ki
Boise State Public Radio
File photo: Idaho State Correctional Institution

When Idaho Department of Correction Director Josh Tewalt gave a performance update to the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration committee last week, Rep. Barbara Ehardt (R-Idaho Falls) took it as an opportunity to ask him about Idaho’s female incarceration rate – the highest in the country.

“We're failing,” she said. “We're probably failing as a community. We're probably failing as families. But it's a shame that it has to be reflected in prison.”

Ehardt was referencing the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report on the country’s prison population in 2020, which showed 110 per 100,000 Idaho women were incarcerated.

The most recent federal data, released at the end of last year, showed 127 per 100,000 Idaho women were incarcerated in 2021 – more than two and a half times the national average for that year.

Overall, for men and women, Idaho ranked sixth for the highest incarceration rate of all states.

However, the Bureau of Justice Statistics cautioned against comparing Idaho’s data from the most recent report to previous years. That’s because, it said, Idaho had been submitting its data incorrectly from 2015-2020 by misclassifying people with life sentences as “unsentenced” due to their lack of a scheduled release date.

That meant Idaho’s reported sentenced population could have been about 9% lower than the actual number.

In response to Ehardt’s question, Tewalt said the problem is complicated. He noted that women are sentenced to “riders” at higher rates than men, which affects how many women are included in the total prison population. The rider program is intended to give low-risk people the chance to avoid prison.

People in that program are under the jurisdiction of the court until it decides whether to sentence them or put them on probation, but in the meantime, they’re in a prison environment with more treatment options.

“That's not an excuse. That's not to say that it's good where it is. I'm just saying it's context,” Tewalt said.

He went on to tell a story about how he accompanied IDOC parole officers on a recent visit to a woman on parole in the Treasure Valley. She had overdosed on fentanyl the week before, and shortly after, began using again.

“What is your option with somebody like that?” Tewalt asked. “You're putting them in handcuffs – not because you want to see them prosecuted, but because you want them to live.”

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicates Idaho is the only state where a higher percentage of people in prison are there for drug-related crimes (32%) compared to violent ones (29%).

Tewalt said law enforcement has few places to take people in crisis other than the emergency room or jail.

“Until we do something about that, we're going to see incarceration continue to be the default.”

He said he hopes the problem is addressed “before the involvement of the Idaho Department of Correction.”

A new women’s prison

Idaho is negotiating a contract to build a new 848-bed women’s prison south of Boise.

The $112 million project, signed off by lawmakers last year, will free up space to avoid holding roughly 1,550 people in private facilities out of state or county jails, according to the Idaho Department of Correction.

Earlier this month, the state’s Permanent Building Fund Advisory Council approved the design team for the women’s prison, Okland and HOK, and it’s now negotiating the contract. The facility will predominantly include minimum-custody beds, with about 50 medium-custody beds.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.

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