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Will Inslee’s plan to reduce property crimes work?

Jay Inslee at a meeting. Credit: John Stang

If Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to reduce property crimes with a year of community supervision for many convicts is to work, the money needs to be there — and for the long run.

“If you don’t fund it, don’t do it at all,” said Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, who supports the plan.

“We have huge concerns about ongoing funding. If this bill is not funded beyond the oncoming biennium, it all falls apart,” said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which opposes the plan.

That’s some of what law enforcement officials told the Washington House Public Safety Committee Wednesday — along with some skepticism that the governor’s plan will work.

Washington has the highest property crime rate in the nation, according to 2013 FBI figures released in November 2014. Washington’s property crime rate that year was 3,659 offenses per 100,000 city residents. The national average for 2013 was 2,731 offenses per 100,000 city residents.

Inslee set up a task force, which made recommendations to trim property crime sentences while making one year of community supervision mandatory after prison or jail times for all but the most minor property-crime offenders. The task force studied systems that appear to work in others state, and adopted an approach used by about 20 states.

Washington ended community supervision for property crimes in 1984. The task force’s report blamed the lack of follow-up supervision of property-crime convicts for their returning to stealing.

“We have a failed experiment that produced too much crime in our state,” Inslee said in a phone press conference on Friday.

The task force’s recommendations ended up in a bill by Sen. James Hargrove, D- Hoquiam, which the Senate passed 40-9. This bill was the subject of Tuesday’s House hearing.

The bill’s main plank is the community supervision to help a convict adjust to post-prison life. Another part of the bill would reduce the number of sentencing ranges, including dropping many to less than one year. Sentences of more than one year are served in state prisons. Sentences of one year or less are served in county jails.

Bernie Warner, the state’s corrections secretary, said that 28 percent of the state’s released felony convicts return to prison within three years. The new plan has a target of trimming 13 percent of the recidivists in that 28 percent. Right now, Washington’s prisons hold roughly 17,400 inmates, which is slightly more than they were designed for. With no changes in the current system, that number is expected to climb even higher, Warner said.

The proposed plan is expected to eventually lead to the hiring of roughly 100 new community corrections officers. The costs are predicted to be $4 million in the 2015-2017 state budget biennium and $8 million in each subsequent budget biennium. The community supervision part of the plan is expected to eventually trim 2,000 offenders from the state’s prisons. Having these offenders outside of Washington’s prisons is predicted to save the state $124 million over six years.

“This is not a proposal to cut costs. It is designed to decrease crime,” said Sandy Mullins, the governor’s senior policy advisor for public safety, at Tuesday’s hearing.

“What we have here is a very delicately balanced bill. … It recognizes a new strategy,” Thurston County’s Tunheim said.

Bremerton Police Chief Steven Strachan worried about the bill’s sunset date of 2022, saying that makes future funding a question mark. “There are too many unanswered questions in this bill,” Strachan said.

Barker, Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary and Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza questioned the validity of the task force’s recidivism projections. And they fretted about whether the increased number of sentences of less than one year will overload county jails without the state helping with those costs. Barker said his organization crunched the task force’s figures and concluded that the recidivism rate would be actually reduced by less than 1 percent, not 13 percent.

“As we looked at the numbers, the reward is so small compared to the risk,” Barker said.

Former Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge is a member of the governor’s task force. He testified that the plan’s projections are solid, and that the study did not conclude that jail populations would rise.

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