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Now or later

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We see examples of this all over, in our personal lives as well as public. Fix a small leak in your house’s roof today, or wait and let it become a much more expensive problem in a year or two.

Or a minor pothole in the road that turns into a major repair project after several months of neglect.

There’s a common phrase for it: “Pay me now, or pay me later.” With the “later” usually being a lot more pricey.

Last week came another good example, and we’ll be interested to see how the Idaho Legislature responds.

This comes in a request by the state Department of Health and Welfare – there’s one strike, since hardly anyone in official Idaho really likes funding those guys – for new funding (how are you going to manage tax cuts if you go adding more spending?), to the tune of $11.2 million. At least the amount is modest in the context of state budgeting. What would it be going for? Drug and mental health treatment? You can almost feel the lack of legislator ardor.

You might say the proposal doesn’t enter the process on a glide path to passage.

Here’s the background.

In Idaho, about 15,000 people are “in the system” of state probation and parole. Officials have been breaking them out into categories, based on risk of having to return or send them to prison. Around 2,000 are considered low-risk, so the parole and probation people have begun to keep them on a looser leash.

The higher-risk probationers and parolees are another matter. In a great many cases, half or more, these are people who have drug abuse and mental health problems.

Those factors have a lot to do with how much time and effort our “system” spends on them. I’ve seen this personally recently, watching not far from where I live a household with people snarled in drug and mental issues turn into a problem for the area, with local law enforcement, jails, probation and parole spending endless hours over a period of years trying to deal with it. You probably can easily find similar examples in your community. (If you can’t, just ask your local police.)

So: The $11.2 million DHW is seeking would go toward providing drug rehabilitation and treatment and mental health services directed toward the significant number of parolees who would benefit from them.

Getting back to the matter of paying now or later: A study last year by the Western Intermountain Commission on Higher Education estimated the average cost for this kind of drug/mental help would amount to about $1,514 per offender.

The state now spends about $30,400 per offender to manage these people through conventional probation and parole. More than a third of felon offenders typically have returned to prison, where the cost for housing them is upwards of $20,000 a year – but that’s just the beginning, if they’re then paroled out again (or even serve their terms and then return to the streets unprepared). They will again, one way and another, eat up many our dollars, tax dollars and otherwise.

We could pay all that, or … a much smaller amount on the front end, and maybe even get a productive citizen out of the deal.

We’ll see what the Idaho Legislature does.

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