LOCAL NEWS

State GOP senators sound alarm on ongoing effort to cut prison population

Sep 17, 2021, 11:28 AM
prison...
Airway Heights Corrections Center. (Photo courtesy of Department of Corrections Washington State)
(Photo courtesy of Department of Corrections Washington State)

The effort by Washington Democratic lawmakers to empty prison cells and return convicted felons to the street is creating new public safety risks across the state. Or at least that’s the conclusion reached by state Senate Republicans in a new 40-page report released this week.

State prison nurse says workers preparing to leave over vaccine mandate

The report — “Prison Alarm Bells: Five Years of Failure at the Department of Corrections – and What Washington Can Do About It” — calls attention to the lessons unlearned following the worst state-government management debacle in recent memory, the accidental early release of nearly 3,000 convicts before their sentences expired, according to senators who shared the report.

“Right now, everyone is hearing about the problems that have been created for law enforcement by the new police restrictions passed by the Legislature this year, but that’s just the beginning of the story,” said Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley), the ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

The new report, released by Senators Padden, Chris Gildon (R-Puyallup), and Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro-Wooley), is a five-year follow-up to the Senate Law and Justice Committee’s exhaustive report released in 2016 regarding the early-release debacle. In that deadly case, 13 years of erroneous computer programming caused the Department of Corrections (DOC) to miscalculate sentences for inmates convicted of sexual and violent crimes. Some were released as many as two years early.

The DOC was notified of its mistake in 2012, yet delayed a software fix for three years because it had other priorities. The inmates who were released early went on to commit a wide variety of crimes while they should have been behind bars, including vehicular homicide and murder.

Now, the former judge says another set of problems have been created at the highest level of management: the Legislature and the governor’s office.

“These problems are quite disturbing,” Padden said. “Over the last five years, our colleagues have pursued an agenda that appears to regard Department of Corrections more as a human service agency devoted to the well-being of inmates, and one that has failed to put public safety first.”

Padden said perhaps the most notorious legislation was the elimination of felony sentences for possession of heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, and other hard drugs in what was known as the Blake bill.

“That’s now a barely enforceable misdemeanor, which has a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine, and many prosecutors don’t pursue them at all” Padden said.

“While this specific report is about the Department of Corrections, it is important to note that is just one link in our system of justice. That all really begins with law enforcement enforcing the law and making arrests, and it includes prosecutors who bring cases to trial. And it pretty much it finishes with the Department of Corrections. We, as a state, have real issues at each one of those links,” Sen. Gildon said.

The report points to $80 million in DOC cuts Democrats pushed through the Legislature, and the reduction of 3,300 prison cells, many in Sen. Wagoner’s district, which houses the Monroe Prison Complex.

“Just letting people out — I think you can see what that has caused and you see it on the streets of Seattle in the streets of Everett,” Wagoner explained.

The latest report describes a series of DOC management blunders that have occurred since 2016, including horrific medical care negligence at the Monroe Correctional Complex that resulted in numerous deaths, and a negligent inmate housing decision that led to a murder at the Airway Heights Correctional Center.

But the report reserves its greatest criticism for management decisions made at the highest level, in the Executive and Legislative branches of state government. By promoting early releases for convicted felons, weakening criminal statutes, and closing prison facilities, the senators argue that the governor’s office and the Legislature set the stage for increases in the crime rate statewide.

The report notes:

  • Recidivism rates for inmates released through “selective” state programs, such as the governor’s 2020 mass release of prisoners and the state’s early-release program, the Graduated Reentry Program, launched in 2018, are no better than the state average – and may ultimately exceed it. As a rule of thumb, about 31 percent of offenders can be expected to reoffend within three years of release. For prisoners freed during last year’s mass release, DOC figures show an aggregate failure rate of 64 percent after just one year — i.e., new violations, warrants or returns to confinement.
  • DOC and the executive branch are working to reduce prison capacity at a time when the crime rate is rising. All categories of violent crime have seen double-digit increases over the last five years.
  • The state’s population is up but the inmate population is down, as a result of programs designed to empty prison cells. The state’s population increased by nearly 600,000 people over the last five years, a 7.5 percent increase. Yet prison populations have declined from about 18,000 to less than 14,000, a 22 percent reduction. Washington state already has a low rate of incarceration per capita, ranking 38th nationally.
  • By reducing prison capacity, lawmakers ensure housing problems in the future, and the continuation of early release programs. Prison closures touted as a cost-cutting move in the recession years of 2009 and 2010 led to overcrowding in 2018 and 2019, and prompted majority lawmakers to create the early release programs. Further reductions in prison capacity will only increase pressure to return inmates to the streets sooner.

The report makes a series of recommendations for the DOC and policymakers. Among them, it reaffirms the central recommendation made by the Senate Law and Justice Committee in 2016, never enacted, that the Legislature declare in state law that the top priority of the Department of Corrections is the protection of public safety.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

Local News

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Northwest, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer reac...
Associated Press

Man rescued by Coast Guard wanted in ‘Goonies’ fish incident

A man who was saved by a Coast Guard rescue swimmer at the mouth of the Columbia River as a massive wave rolled the yacht he was piloting Friday was wanted for a bizarre incident in which police said he left a dead fish at the Astoria, Oregon, home featured in the classic 1985 film, "The Goonies."
12 hours ago
airport...
Frank Sumrall

State Rep: ‘None of these locations are suitable’ for a future airport

According to Jason Rantz, the acting chairman of CACC, Warren Hendrickson, stated he believes none of the airport locations will move forward.
1 day ago
(KIRO 7)...
Shawn Garrett, KIRO 7 News

Deputies seize nearly 100 pounds of drugs during Tacoma arrest

Deputies with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department seized nearly 100 pounds of drugs while arresting a man with a felony warrant in Tacoma
1 day ago
police pursuit...
Matt Markovich

Source of pursuit deaths updates controversial data

Stats used by legislators to consider changing police pursuit laws may be in question.
1 day ago
recycle...
Nicole Jennings

‘Recycle, don’t throw out’ newest message from King County initiative

King County has launched a new initiative to get people to recycle or reuse items before automatically throwing them out.
1 day ago
belltown...
KIRO Newsradio Newsdesk

Pedestrian hit by train in Belltown, police investigate

Seattle Police are investigating after a man was hit by a train near Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood Thursday night.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
State GOP senators sound alarm on ongoing effort to cut prison population