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Rider Programs in Idaho Offer Prisoners a Second Chance

by Jayson Hawkins 

Overcrowded prison populations across the nation have forced states to seek alternatives to incarceration. One solution being used in Idaho is intensive rehabilitative programs called “riders” that can take the place of prison sentences. 

About one out of six Idaho prisoners are selected for rider programs, the vast majority of whom have been convicted of non­violent and/or drug-related crimes. The programs are designed to help participants overcome problems such as aggressive behavior, sexual misconduct and substance abuse. After completing the programs, they are placed on probation for the remainder of their sentences.

“It offers people an out,” said Idaho Department of Correction chief of staff Bree Derrick. “There’s an off-ramp to get back on to probation.”

Prisoners involved in riders are kept apart from the general prison population, but the programs still take place behind bars. A typical day for participants lasts from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and includes six hours in a classroom plus counseling, group sessions or other forms of treatment. The classes are intended to improve assessment skills in handling common situations. In one exercise, participants are given flashcards with different scenarios and discuss the best way to react. 

Idaho rider programs reportedly had a success rate of 90 percent in 2016, a rate calculated by the number of prisoners who achieved their established treatment goals. The relevance of that statistic is questionable, however, because within three years of successful completion almost half of the participants who were released – 43 percent – ended up in prison or another rider program. Recidivism rates for rider graduates ran about eight percent higher than for parolees and 10 percent above those on probation. 

“They’re actually recidivating at higher rates than people who are sentenced directly to probation or might serve a [prison] term and then leave on parole,” Derrick noted.

Another criticism of riders has been that they expose low-­risk participants to a wider range of criminal activity through interaction with others in the program. Eli Shubert, a 21-year-old first-time offender, learned the ins and outs of breaking into vehicles and where to score drugs while completing a rider program. 

“You meet people in there, and it’s like, ‘here’s my number, call me when you get out and I can hook you up,’” he stated. 

Despite those issues, riders have been endorsed by criminal justice officials who argue the programs save prison beds for more dangerous criminals and potentially shave millions of dollars off the state budget. It costs Idaho about $59 a day to house each prisoner. The warden at one facility estimated that the average participant in a three-month rider would typically be facing a three-year sentence, so every prisoner who finishes the program and does not recidivate represents savings of over $58,000. For those in six-month riders who otherwise would be serving six-year sentences, the savings double to $117,000. Even with a failure rate near 50 percent, the reduction in incarceration costs could be considerable. 

Approximately 1,500 Idaho prisoners, both men and women, participate in rider programs – around 17 percent of the state’s prison population.

“If we could find a sweet spot where judges would still have an ability to make sure people receive treatment intervention but not in an incarcerated setting and have all the negatives prison has in someone’s life, that would probably make everyone happy,” said Derrick. 

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Sources: idahostatejournal.com, idahopress.com, lmtribune.com