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

Sep 17, 2021, 11:28 AM
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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.

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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

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