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.