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Idaho Incompetence Delays Prisoners' Release, Taxpayers Foot The Bill

Idaho prisoners check in but they don't check outand it's costing taxpayers thousands. That's the criticism being hurled at the Idaho parole commission and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) for unnecessarily holding prisoners past their approved parole dates.

At any given time, hundreds of state prisoners are being needlessly held past their parole dates. According to public records, during each month from September 2002 through August 2003, an average of 233 prisoners languished past their parole dates, with a high of 279 in June 2003. In October 2003 the number was 245, said Department of Correction Director Tom Beauclair.

These prisoners can be held for any number of reasons, including their inability to pay a $500 bond, not completing a required substance abuse treatment program, and failure to locate suitable treatment facilities for sex offenders.

For states facing huge budget deficits, so called pay-to-stay programs have become all the rage. But Idaho lawmakers have added a new twistpay to get out. A cockamamie legislative scheme requires prisoners paroling out of state to post a $500 bond before being released. The bond is necessary, says executive director of the Commission of Pardons and Paroles, Olivia Craven, because the commission cannot afford the $2,000 to $3,000 it costs for extradition should the parolee violate parole and have to be returned to Idaho. The flaw in this logic should be obvious. At an imprisonment cost of $50.23 per day per prisoner, the expense of unnecessary incarceration quickly outweighs any potential savings.

For example, prisoner Elijah Anderson had his parole to Texas delayed for four months while he scrounged up the $500 bond. Another prisoner, Christopher Lefavour, who faced charges in Oregon upon his release, had his parole delayed for at least 6 months in 2003 because he couldn't pay the bond. Taxpayer cost for needlessly imprisoning Anderson and Lefavour while they gathered the bond money: $13,500.

An exception to the statute allows the bond to be waived for indigent prisoners. But amazingly, even top prison officials were oblivious of the provision until it was brought to their attention by a local newspaper. After the exposure, the DOC and the parole commission quickly reached a tentative agreement in October 2003 allowing the bond to be waived for cash-strapped prisoners, including Lefavour.

A lack of communication between the parole commission and the DOC can further hinder release. A case in point is Mary Schenck. After reviewing Schenck's case in 2002, the parole commission set a parole date of September 9, 2003, with the condition she first complete a substance abuse treatment program. The DOC, however, transferred Schenck to another prison before she could complete the program. Her parole date came and went.

Parole and DOC officials blamed each other, and even Schenck, for the mix up. "It appears she's been ready to go," said DOC parole coordinator Lorie Brisbon in mid September. "She should have been released on the ninth, so it seems [the parole commissioners] have their own issues for not getting things done on time. They're not blameless in this."

But parole commissioners faulted the DOC saying it didn't do enough to get prisoners into treatment programs or to prepare them for parole hearings. Absurdly, Craven also blamed Schenck, saying that she too was responsible for the foul up because she knew what the commission required of her.

On October 23, 2003, in a sudden change of heart (possibly resulting from the media scrutiny surrounding Schenck's case) the parole commission relented, agreeing to release Schenck, even though she had not completed the substance abuse treatment program. The delay "is no fault of your own," Commissioner Del Ray Holm admitted to Schenck.

Sex offenders experience the biggest parole delays. In fact, it appears some may never taste freedom again. Dennis Slaughter, a. convicted rapist serving a life sentence, was granted parole in April 1996 on the condition that he parole to a secure sex offender treatment facility. But Slaughter, 59, can't find one to accept him, and the DOC is unwilling to help. "[Y]ou can't do the impossible," said Beauclair, referring to the difficulty of placing sex offenders such as Slaughter. However, requesting the impossible does not appear to be a problem.

"I've done everything that they've asked me to do, even some that wasn't asked," said Slaughter. "It just seems like when you've got a sex offense, you're a pariah." As of October 2003, the state had spent roughly $136,000 keeping Slaughter imprisoned needlessly.

The parole of another sex offender, William Marvin, has also been held up for years. Marvin, who in 1995 received a 3 to 10 year sentence for molesting an underage boy, was granted parole in 1998. Yet, his parole appears stalled and he doesn't know why. "That's something that me and my family have asked over and over," he said. "I pretty much got shafted." And so, it would seem, have the taxpayers who are spending more than $18,000 a year to keep Marvin in prison.

Some state legislators think a sinister motive might lurk behind the parole delays. "[T]here's a desire on the part of the [DOC] to maintain folks incarcerated," said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, adding that the DOC concentrates more on building prisons than on releasing prisoners.

The numbers seem to bear this out. From a budget of $41 million in 1993, the Idaho DOC's operating costs ballooned to $125 million in 2003. The 2003 prison population of roughly 5,820 is double what it was in 1997.

But some politicians may be catching on to the game. On January 20, 2004, The Idaho Statesman reported that Governor Dirk Kempthorne recommended that the state Legislature deny a request from DOC Director Beauclair for 14 additional parole and probation officers and more than $1 million to supervise an alleged influx of parolees and probationers.

Source: The Idaho Statesman

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