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Senate Republicans to Inslee: Releasing prison inmates violates Constitution

A sign pleading for help hangs in a window at the Cook County jail complex on April 09, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

All 21 members of the Washington State Senate Republican Caucus are banding together to demand that Governor Jay Inslee rethink the plan to release over 1,100 inmates in the state prison system.

Governor Inslee is allowing the nonviolent offenders to be released early in order to reduce crowding and limit the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

But in a letter to the governor on Friday, the Republican Caucus stated the governor is violating the state Constitution, specifically the Crime Victims Bill of Rights.

“The state Constitution requires that victims be notified before there is any potential release … Governor Inslee in his proclamation suspends all sort of notification requirements,” said Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley).

Inslee, Dept. of Corrections plan to release nonviolent offenders

Anyone sentenced to a state prison has been found guilty of at least one felony. Padden said that he worries even nonviolent offenders will present a risk to public safety if they are back out on the streets early.

“The recidivism rate is that one out of every three of these folks who are released will have a new felony within three years … plus we think it’s going to help spread the virus, not contain it,” he said.

The Republicans noted that alternative measures could have been taken to keep inmates and Department of Corrections employees safe, including putting inmates on work release or moving them to less-crowded places, such as portable facilities and the Maple Lane site in Thurston County.

“It’s unusual to get all 21 members of our caucus, which includes one Democrat, to be unified to do this,” Padden said. “It just seems to fly in the [face] of common sense.”

However, Rep. Roger Goodman (R-Kirkland), chair of the Washington House Public Safety Committee, said that in times of disaster, Gov. Inslee does have the right to take an action that would normally go against the Constitution.

“Both the Constitution and state statute allow for the governor, in times of catastrophic incident … to suspend certain statutory provisions,” he stated. “He absolutely has the authority to do this.”

Goodman said he recently visited a state prison and saw the “terror in the eyes” of inmates and staff members.

“Proper physical distancing cannot be achieved — particularly in the minimum-security units where they have dorm settings,” he said.

He explained that not all of the offenders being released have victims, as they were convicted of nonviolent crimes — but he said that in the cases of those who do have victims, prosecutors will be notified and will in turn notify victims.

“This is a proper balance between the need to preserve the life and health of those who are in the prisons, and not jeopardizing public safety,” Goodman said.


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