Fewer Prisoners, Not More Prison Beds

grygielny ID, Marijuana Legalization

“We don’t have the option to do nothing.” Those are the words of Idaho Board of Corrections Chairwoman Debbie Field. She was referring to the proposal made by the Board for a 1,510 bed  Idaho prison, part of $500 million prison expansion for the state. If the state legislature approves the proposal, it will be worse than doing nothing.

Violent crime in the United States has been falling consistently and dramatically since the early 1990s. Idaho is no exception to this trend: while violent crime peaked in 2002, rates in the state have been at or near record lows since 2014. What reasonable explanation could there be for why the prison population in Idaho is rising so quickly that they will need 2,400 new prison beds by 2022?

The answer is simple: drug violations. Idaho has some of the most regressive, outdated drug laws in the country. It is illegal for Idaho doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients for medicinal purposes. As a result, children suffering from epilepsy and military veterans with post traumatic stress disorder cannot receive a drug that has been proven effective to treat their disorders and improve their lives.

In addition, medical cannabis is an effective alternative to opioid treatment. Since 2012 the opioid overdose death rate in Idaho has nearly doubled, further proving the need for medical cannabis legalization. Efforts to get a medical cannabis initiative on the November ballot in Idaho failed, the fourth time in eight years that such efforts have come up short.

Idaho needs to take the lead of states that are serious about proactive, beneficial changes. On June 26, voters in Oklahoma overwhelmingly approved legalizing medical marijuana by a twelve point margin. Once that law goes into effect Oklahoma will be the thirtieth state that allows doctors to prescribe cannabis.

Utah may be the thirty-first. A legalization initiative is on the November ballot there, and a recent poll showed support for medical marijuana at nearly 75 percent. Idaho is lagging behind some of the most conservative states in the country on accepting the truth about the benefits of medical marijuana.

In order to significantly lower its prison population, Idaho will need to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana. When a person is convicted of a drug felony it can destroy their lives. They can lose access to affordable housing and temporary assistance for themselves and their children. Without a job or support, their risk of a second prison sentence becomes far more likely.

Two-thirds of the people admitted to an Idaho prison in the last year were repeat offenders, with three-quarters of those sentences being for drug possession violations. This is the horrifying cycle of the criminal justice system, which keeps people from rebuilding their lives and drains the state of resources.

Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana, while another thirteen have decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug. By comparison, Idaho’s possession laws are aggressively punitive. Possessing any amount of marijuana is punishable by prison time, and possessing three ounces or more is a felony that carries a five year prison sentence. That is the same sentence that the state gives to those convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

“We want to be tough,” said Idaho Judiciary Chairman Lynn Luker, “but we want to be smart.” Their version of tough has failed, so it’s time for the Idaho legislature to get serious about being smart. Reforming drug laws, including decriminalizing marijuana possession, would dramatically decrease Idaho’s prison population. The state would save hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of people would not have their lives destroyed by long, unnecessary prison sentences. There is no excuse for not instituting these reforms.

Tom Houseman