I recently spent an evening reading the Washington Department of Corrections' 90-page report, released three weeks ago, about the recent deaths of three Seattle-area police officers at the hands of convicts on probation. Most government reports are a slog. This one is riveting and depressing. It is part keystone cops, part bureaucratic bumbling, and part unfortunate series of events. But the report also reveals systemic problems that should make taxpayers and policymakers take note. The report tells the tale of three drug-addled criminals who were given the benefit of the doubt by the courts. They received something called the Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative (DOSA). Basically, it's a shorter prison sentence combined with mandatory drug treatment, followed by intensive community supervision upon release. But at every step of the way, both the offenders and the system failed to uphold their end of the bargain. And those failures resulted in the deaths of the three police officers. Ultimately, the DOC report is a self-indictment and a clarion call for reform. It also shines a spotlight on Washington's byzantine sentencing and probation system. In August of last year, rookie Seattle Police Officer Joselito Barber was killed when his patrol car was t-boned by a speeding SUV. The driver of the SUV was Mary Jane Rivas, who reportedly had drugs and alcohol in her system at the time of the wreck. Rivas had been released from prison 10 days earlier after serving time for possession of cocaine but had failed to check in with her probation officer. Three months later, in a tragic case of déjÃÂ vu, rookie Seattle Police Officer Beth Nowak was killed on her way to work when she was t-boned by a speeding car. The driver of the car, who was also killed, was Neal Ryan Kelley. Kelley had been out of prison for almost a year after serving time for assault and auto theft. He had a history of drug use and there was a warrant out for his arrest for failing to meet with his probation officer. Less then a month after Nowak's death, King County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Cox - a deputy prosecutor turned cop – was shot and killed by a former inmate named Raymond Porter. Porter, a self-described former gang member, then shot himself to death. Porter had served time for delivery of cocaine and escape and had a history of drug use. At the time of the shooting, Porter was wanted for failing to report to his probation officer. Following these deaths and a public outcry, Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered Secretary of Corrections Harold Clarke to review the state's probation system. Last month, Clarke released his report. Here are the lowlights:
- Washington's sentencing grid is so complicated that even judges can't figure it out. The DOC says approximately one in four inmates arrive at prison with incorrect sentences that have to be sent back to the courts for revision. That's what happened in the case of Rivas. By the time the courts fixed their mistake, she'd been held in prison longer than her sentence. In the rush to release Rivas, prison staff missed the fact (perhaps because of a computer malfunction) that she had a warrant out for her arrest that should have kept her locked up. Instead she walked free, never checked in with her probation officer (even if she'd tried, he was on vacation and no one was covering his caseload), and 10 days later was involved in the accident that killed Barber.
- There aren't enough drug treatment beds in prison. As a result, the three offenders involved in the officer deaths never got treatment they were supposed to receive as recipients of the special Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative. The DOC report says in Rivas' case: "She never had the opportunity to become fully involved or complete her drug treatment program. ... Her drug addiction and problems were never addressed while incarcerated." Kelley and Porter were supposed to get long-term residential treatment. But it turns out that wasn't available at the prisons where they were housed. Instead they got outpatient drug treatment.
- Community corrections officers are overworked and sometimes simply not up to the job. The DOC investigation found they sometimes didn't conduct curfew checks and home visits, failed to require monthly drug tests, gave verbal reprimands when drug tests were positive, and got hopelessly behind on paperwork. Perhaps most jaw-dropping is the case of Kelley. While on probation (and before the accident that killed Nowak), he stole a car, led police on a high-speed chase, crashed the car, led police on a foot chase, resisted arrest, was tazed, and finally was arrested. Despite all that, his probation officer allowed him to be released from jail. The DOC report says: "Kelley's Community Corrections Officer concluded there were no violations to address other than the non-law abiding behavior ..."
So far, no DOC employees have been disciplined. But since the report was issued in mid-March, there've been several developments. Secretary Clarke, under orders from the governor, issued emergency measures to beef-up the probation system. These include:
- A new sanction grid to help CCOs decide what punishment is appropriate when a parolee breaks the rules.
- Probation officers must now conduct a home visit within 10 days of getting a new case.
- When a CCO goes on vacation, someone must cover the caseload. However, Secretary Clarke is not calling for additional probation officers to help ease the workload. Right now in Washington there's one probation officer for every 36 offenders in the community.
Officials with the probation officers union have questioned some of these reforms. Also the Washington State Republican Party has criticized the Governor and DOC, pointing out that the maximum penalty for violating probation is still only sixty days in jail. The DOC has also issued a 17-step action plan for addressing deficiencies in the probation system. It all sounds pretty bureaucratic. Stuff like: Examine and revise policies related to supervision, violation and treatment. Another: Systematically conduct an annual review of 25 percent of all cases to ensure consistent application of policies and standards. There's also talk of big-picture reforms. For instance, Gregoire wants a new system for evaluating the risk that offenders pose to the community. In addition, she wants to simplify the rules and laws that govern community supervision. Everyone seems to agree the legislature has created a probation system that's confusing and difficult to implement. It sounds like the legislature also needs to simplify the sentencing system. Remember, the judges have a hard time figuring it out! In Olympia, there's legislation moving that would increase the number of drug treatment beds in prison. This is part of a broader offender reentry initiative designed to reduce Washington's recidivism rate. The idea is if you help inmates transition from prison to the outside world, they'll be less likely to re-offend. To me the real question, though, is whether the lessons learned from the deaths of officers Barber and Nowak and Deputy Cox will result in real, lasting change. Will there be the money, the political will, and the leadership to actually implement all the recommendations and lessons learned? On a personal note, I recently did a story for public radio about a veteran community corrections officer in Tacoma named Jenny Sheridan. I wanted to see what the job's really like. My take: CCOs have a tough, tough job. They have big caseloads. They're responsible for managing criminals, many of whom are drug and alcohol addicted. Probation violations are a dime a dozen, and there aren't enough jail beds to lock up every violator. Sometimes giving a person a second or a third chance is arguably what they need. Clearly there are CCOs who aren't doing a good job. But the good ones are no doubt helping keep our streets safer and, on their best days, helping ex-cons stay clean and sober and out of trouble.