Put yourself in the place of an Idaho judge.
Appearing before you is someone in the throes of substance abuse. He’s charged with felony drug possession or burglary or both.
You can put him on probation. It’s relatively cheap — about $5 a day to monitor him. But all you have is his word that he’ll try to get clean.
And if that doesn’t work?
Since Idaho doesn’t provide much if anything in the way of in-patient treatment, your next choice is a “rider.” In other words, you impose a stiff prison sentence and then reserve the right to suspend it after the first six or nine months.
Off to one of five prisons — including Cottonwood’s North Idaho Correctional Institution or the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center — he goes.
Keeping someone in prison is considerably more expensive — about $66 per day. But at least in a rider program, the offender gets isolated from the drug culture. He’s exposed to a six-month substance abuse counseling program as well as education, behavioral modification and anger management classes.
Behind all this is a powerful incentive to change. Complete the rider successfully and it’s back to probation. Fail the rider and it’s a one-way ticket to serving out a full prison sentence. About 90 percent of people on riders get probation.
Considering who winds up on a rider, you’d think the prospects for success are decent. As Emily Lowe of the Idaho Press reported in a story reprinted Monday in the Lewiston Tribune, nearly 74 percent of offenders are placed on a rider for non-violent crimes. The largest group, about 40 percent, were convicted of drug offenses.
And you’d be wrong.
As Lowe documented, the state gets better results either by placing people back on the street and hoping for the best or locking them up for years in Idaho’s overcrowded prisons.
Looking over cases from 2015 to 2018, here’s what she found:
l Of the people who completed a rider, 42.7 percent committed a new offense within three years and ended up back in prison.
l The recidivism rate among people placed on probation was 33.3 percent.
l Among those who spent time in the main prison system and were placed on parole, 35 percent reoffended.
One of the inmates Lowe interviewed offered this insight: At least for some, rider programs are a crime school. Eli Shubert, 21, said his rider program taught him how to break into cars and where to find drugs.
“I know that I know a lot more about meth and heroin than I did before I went in,” he said. “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.’ ”
It’s counter intuitive, but it may be easier to make things worse with non-violent offenders. With people who are caught up in drug abuse and stealing to support the lifestyle, recividism is more frequent than with those who committed a violent act in an isolated instance.
All of which merely reinforces what has been clear for some time: Idaho is relying on its criminal justice system as a surrogate for inadequate drug treatment and mental health programs — with predictable results.
“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 incarerated setting and have all the negatives prison has in someone’s life, that would probably make everybody happy,” Idaho Department of Correction chief of staff Bree Derrick told Lowe.
But Idaho legislators tend to listen to the get-tough-on-crime crowd. So until they begin to see drug addiction as a matter of public health, don’t look for the situation to improve. — M.T.