Idaho Department of Correction failures leave inmates in limbo

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

Frustrations between First District Court and the Idaho Department of Correction are apparent following allegations that justice officials are failing to follow through on presentence investigation appointments.

An inmate serves his time in prison. Photo courtesy ACLU.

According to court documents, inmates experienced a failure to return phone calls, investigations left uncompleted and reports turned in late or not at all. One individual, Ray Allen Jones, remained incarcerated for 65 days while awaiting his presentence investigation, a situation that District Judge Steve Verby lambasted while ordering that IDC officials follow through.

“Due to the ongoing failure of the Department of Correction to return phone calls and schedule a presentence investigation interview with Defendant Ray Allen Jones … (he) has wrongfully continued to be jailed,” Verby wrote in the order.

The presentence investigation report is an important part of the sentencing process. It reveals whether or not there are circumstances in the convicted person’s background that should affect sentencing and is a key court record. The investigation and report are necessary steps prior to sentencing, at which point the convicted individual can serve out whatever sentence the court issues.

But according to court documents, numerous issues have prevented jailed inmates from receiving their sentences, a situation Verby observed while substituting three weeks for Judge Barbara Buchanan. The failure by the Department of Correction, he states, has impacted the entire justice system as officials and employees work to reschedule delayed appointments that were set weeks beforehand. What’s more, the needless incarceration costs taxpayer money and opens the state of Idaho up to a potential class-action lawsuit.

“Based on the information received, it appears that the Idaho Department of Correction has been, and continues to be unable to deal effectively with the egregious problem of failing to return phone calls to defendants in order to complete presentence reports in a timely manner,” Verby wrote in the order. “This failure by the Department is abhorrent and has resulted in people remaining in jail when they should not be.”

Verby’s frustration is evident in the transcript for Jones’ hearing to be released on his own recognizance. He said he was “aghast” that IDC personnel had failed to come through for Ray despite more than 14 attempts to arrange a presentence investigation and noted that “the record has been replete with defendants and their counsel who have stated this has now become the norm.”

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys acknowledged their aggravation with the system. Tevis Hull, the Boundary County prosecutor handling Jones’ case, said in the court transcript it’s a regular problem that has become worse in recent years. Sentencings that formerly took place within six to eight weeks now are drawn out to ten weeks or more, and Hull sees the Department of Correction taking no steps to address the issues.

“It is an atrocity in the way this is being handled, and that’s why I had made the recommendation to the court to issue (an order) … because it’s a perpetual problem,” Hull said, according to the transcript.

According to Correction officials, they are aware of the issue and are taking steps to address it.

“We’ve heard the First District Judiciary loudly and clearly,” said Jeff Ray, the department’s public information officer. “For justice to be served, it is imperative that these reports be produced in a thorough, accurate and timely manner.”

The problem, he added, stems from an overload of work and not enough personnel to handle it.

“Put simply, there’s more work but fewer workers,” he said. “Last month we asked the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee for additional resources for presentence investigations. It appears that request was successful. While we work to hire and train more investigators, we have temporarily reassigned additional resources from elsewhere in the state.”

“We are working diligently to ensure judges have the information they need to make appropriate and timely sentencing decisions,” Ray concluded.

For ACLU of Idaho Community Engagement Manager Jeremy Woodson, that case overload speaks to a deeper systemic issue within the courts.

“It’s yet another example of the disaster that is our criminal justice system in general,” he said. “The mass incarceration that we have become addicted to has become far too costly and far too ineffective for what it produces.”

According to Woodson, citizens have more to worry about than systemic inefficiencies when the state cannot fulfill its responsibilities in the justice system. Indeed, it places the individual’s Constitutional rights in jeopardy, he said.

“Any time you have a situation where the state has an obligation to provide something and that’s not happening, … we think that’s a cause for concern and an issue to raise in terms of people’s rights,” Woodson added.  

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