At a packed Aug. 7 meeting at the Coeur d'Alene Resort, local officials and residents railed against the Idaho Department of Correction.
The reason for their ire? A proposal from state correction officials to place a 130-bed re-entry facility for inmates nearing the end of their sentences, along with parole or probation violators, in Kootenai County. Residents and officials alike argued that the agency is untrustworthy and that such a facility would pose a public safety risk to the community.
"I'm here to oppose this planned facility," Hayden City Councilman Matthew Roetter told the crowd. "Not in my town."
"If one person gets raped, robbed or murdered from this facility, I will never sleep well the rest of my life," Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks said.
John Grimm, a candidate for Kootenai County Sheriff, said that the Department of Correction can't do the job: "I just don't trust these guys."
But officials argue that the facility would actually help reduce recidivism rates. Josh Tewalt, director of the state Department of Correction, says that the idea is to co-locate drug and mental health services and job search assistance with supervisory correctional guard staff. Soon-to-be-released inmates and parole and probation violators — who otherwise would be booked into local jails — would be housed in the residential portion of the facility.
The "ultimate goal," he says, is to reduce inmates' risk of reoffending by providing them the support to effectively reintegrate into society.
"We're also looking at three out of four people who are coming in our front door on new sentences who have failed on parole, probation and supervision programs," Tewalt tells the Inlander. "We need to provide additional services to reduce crime in our communities."
During the 2019 session, the Idaho Legislature allocated roughly $12 million for a community re-entry center to serve the North Idaho panhandle, which currently lacks such a facility. (The agency already operates four others in southern and eastern Idaho.) Tewalt says that the agency is currently looking for a potential site for the facility, and that they are open to either retrofitting an existing building or building a new one.
And while he stresses that the agency isn't "married" to siting the facility in Kootenai County, he says the county's population density, concentration of service providers, and current number of inmates getting released to the region on parole or probation make it desirable. (Officials say that there are an estimated 2,000 felony probationers and parolees living in North Idaho.)
In an email provided to the Inlander, Idaho Department of Correction Chief of Staff Bree E. Derrick writes that data from 2013 through 2017 shows that the recidivism rates for people leaving a community re-entry facility within a year are lower than for those leaving a minimum-custody state prison on parole.
But opponents of the facility in Kootenai County still strongly object to the pitch.
"There was no indication as to what kind of criminals we'd be getting," Duane Rasmussen, a Coeur d'Alene attorney who opposes the project, tells the Inlander. "It's dangerous for our people to have these people released here."
Tewalt says that the agency would only locate inmates nearing the end of their sentence from minimum-custody prisons with history of good behavior while incarcerated. Additionally, inmates with sex crime and violent crime convictions would generally be excluded.
Currently, there is no timeline for siting the proposed facility. But opposition is mounting. Organizers of the Aug. 7 meeting gathered signatures for a petition and Kootenai County Commissioner Brooks says that he plans to push a resolution opposing the facility. Meanwhile, Lt. Ryan Higgins, a spokesman for Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, tells the Inlander that the sheriff is "not supportive" of a facility that would serve people from outside the county.
But John Winter, a manager at Ace Industrial Supply in Post Falls who was present at the Aug. 7 meeting and regularly hires formerly incarcerated workers, supports the facility.
"Whether there is a re-entry center or not, [the inmates] are still coming back to North Idaho," Winter says. "It's either we give them the tools to succeed when they're here, or not." ♦