- Associated Press - Sunday, August 21, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Reforms to Idaho’s criminal justice system are shrinking its prison population. But the number of people on probation and parole is expanding dramatically, and that has the officers in charge of monitoring them struggling to balance limited resources, large caseloads and increased responsibilities.

The problem is compounded in the state’s most populous county, Ada, and the rest of the 4th District Court region, where judges typically sentence offenders to probation terms that are about two years longer than the rest of the state.

“We need resources. I mean, when you say the prison population is down, all those parolees landed with us,” said Terry Kirkham, the Idaho correction agency’s deputy chief of probation and parole.

State lawmakers began the Justice Reinvestment project three years ago in hopes of reducing the number of prisoners and keeping offenders from committing new crimes. Aided by research and expertise from the Council of State Governments and the Pew Trusts, they examined the characteristics of Idaho’s offender population and made several tweaks to state law to address problem areas. One of the biggest components of the effort is cultural: changing the way lawbreakers are handled, based on the level of risk each person presents.

That means a change in attitude and approach for probation officers, said Gabriel Hofkins, a probation officer who works with mental health court defendants in the Boise region. Like all Idaho probation officers, Hofkins underwent new training to learn how to take a more collaborative, empathy-based approach to offenders.

“We know how to hold people accountable - that was never really the problem - but now (we’re) really looking at how we can best help people in the community kind of overcome the struggles that they have,” Hofkins said.

That kind of personal involvement takes time. More than 15,000 people are under the supervision of probation and parole - an 18 percent increase over the past four years. About 2,000 of the people at lowest risk of reoffending have been placed on the department’s new “limited supervision” unit, where they have far less contact with probation officers than others.

That leaves the probation officers free to focus on those at moderate or high risk of reoffending. Though Justice Reinvestment set a goal of 50 cases per probation officer, the state is averaging about 70. Many officers have caseloads much higher, in the 90 to 100 range, Kirkham said.

That means the state is succeeding so far at getting people out of prison but may be less successful at keeping them from going back in. Most recidivism comes from probationers and parolees deemed high or high-moderate risk, Kirkham said.

A caseload of 30 to 40 high-risk offenders means a probation officer can do more home visits, more employer contact, more social interactions - “all the things you need to support that individual,” Kirkham said.

“If you have a larger caseload, you can put out the fire,” he said. “If you have a smaller caseload, you can stop it before it becomes a fire.”

Probation terms vary based on the type of crime, an offender’s criminal history and other risk factors. But they also vary based on region.

Numbers from the state Department of Correction show terms are shortest in northern Idaho’s 1st District Court - averaging about 2.9 years - and highest in the 4th District Court, which includes Boise. Judges in the 4th District sentence people to an average of 6.6 years on probation.

The statewide average is 4.2 years, with the rest of the districts coming in between 3.9 and 4.7.

Fourth District Judge Patrick Owen said he’s not sure why his district hands down longer probation sentences.

“I don’t know whether we’re seeing more serious cases. I don’t know whether we have aggregate persons that have more extensive criminal histories,” he said. “It may just be institutional in the building, that it’s just how things are done here.”

The longer sentences remain when the numbers are broken down by category. For instance, the average probation term for a sex offender in the 4th District is 11.4 years, compared with a statewide average of 7.8.

“Basically the most important decision we make at sentencing is can this person be successful in the community or not, or is the crime something that requires prison for some period of time?” Owen said. “That’s a hard judgment call. … This would be a lot easier if we had a magic ball.”

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