Financial Lockdown: Department of Correction Up Next in Budget Battle 

Cuts to other agencies may affect the state's prison system

Editor's Note: On Friday, Feb. 4, and again on Monday, Feb. 7, Idaho's budget-writing lawmakers begin hearings to consider the state's third-largest agency. The Department of Correction comes third only to the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Welfare (Fiscal Year 2011 included more than $145 million in general funds for the Department of Correction). A companion story is posted at Citydesk on boiseweekly.com.

As the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee prepares for the Department of Correction's budget hearing, it might seem that Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke is sitting in tall cotton.

Unlike the many departments that are facing deep cuts, Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter recommended a budget for DOC with a 4.2 percent overall increase and a 5.5 percent increase in the general fund.

However, while Reinke is satisfied with his own budget, the department doesn't operate in a vacuum. Cuts in other areas such as the departments of Labor or Health and Welfare could end up affecting his department.

"We are so interconnected," Reinke said. "If you apply pressure to any one area, it's going to affect something else."

As an example, prison populations were steady in the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years, which run from July through June, but went up 3 percent in 2010 and are projected to rise another 3 percent in 2011, due to cuts in mental-health, substance-abuse and other support services from Health and Welfare.

"There have been enormous cuts in that agency," said Reinke. "Our clientele are people who will access those."

Last September, Pocatello resident Ryan Mitchell was shot by a man alleged to have been removed from a state program in July that had paid for his medication, due to budget cuts. Mitchell spoke to the Idaho Health Care Task Force in November, pointing out that the costs of his situation, including the prosecution and potential incarceration of his attacker, would likely end up costing the state more than it had saved.

Otter's proposed budget calls for an additional $25 million in cuts to Medicaid services, which due to Federal restrictions would need to come primarily from adult services. In addition, because state funding matches federal funding, services could be cut by up to $90 million.

The cuts could be worse. Otter's proposed cut was predicated on an additional $33 million in revenue for 2010, which was the figure collected in December 2010 when Otter and his staff wrote the budget.

However, December tax revenues came in $10.7 million lower than expected, and some Republican legislators are concerned that Otter's budget won't hold together should revenues continue to fall. While JFAC agreed to accept the governor's revenue prediction, for now, things could change if January revenues also come in below expectations, resulting in the possibility of further cuts.

DOC is also considering a series of revenue enhancements, including new fees, which would need to be approved by the governor and the Legislature. These include a pre-sentencing investigation fee of $100 to offset the $2.2 million spent last year on such investigations, increasing the current supervision fee for probationers and parolees from $50 a month to $60, and charging $10 per family for background checks on prison visitors. While the department might not be able to collect the full amount from everyone, it could collect at least part of it, and the fees are projected to total about $1 million in extra revenues.

Michael Blankenship, professor of criminal justice at Boise State, is concerned about where such fees could lead.

"I think it's terrible. We're almost back to debtors' prison," he said. "If I don't pay my supervision fee, they could revoke my probation or parole and send me to jail. It's cash-register justice."

Unlike some other states, Reinke said Idaho isn't likely to have to release masses of inmates to deal with budget issues. Instead, he said he is working to keep them from coming in, through programs such as its retained jurisdiction initiative. This could go further in the future.

"In states such as Missouri, before you sentence Joe Sixpack to prison, you have to calculate the cost of incarceration," Blankenship said. "If judges were confronted with the actual cost of prison, which can approach $20,000 a year, would they be so quick to send everybody to this very expensive hotel?"

One factor that does give Reinke hope is what he describes as improved transparency and openness in state governments with other groups, such as the way he has been meeting with Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney to discuss best practices.

"I've never seen the state government interact and communicate the way it is now," said Reinke.

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