Washington's creeping prison problem could get costly

The prison system is over capacity and, according to new research, low-level offenders are receiving harsher and less predictable sentences compared to inmates in other states.
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The prison system is over capacity and, according to new research, low-level offenders are receiving harsher and less predictable sentences compared to inmates in other states.

Washington has a prison problem and it could get expensive.

Prisons in Washington are already filled and the state projects that, by 2018, 1,000 more beds for inmates will be needed. Providing adequate additional space could cost between $387 million and $481 million in capital and operating costs over 10 years, according to research presented at a Thursday meeting of the state's recently created Justice Reinvestment Task Force.

"We've had people sleeping on the floor in the last year," said task force member Bernard Warner, secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections. As of the end of June, the Department of Corrections reported 16,779 inmates, exceeding the state prison system's operational capacity of 16,508. The department was actually renting space in other facilities for 686 of these prisoners.

Formed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year, the bipartisan, 21-member Justice Reinvestment Task Force is attempting to come up with policy options for reducing pressure on the prison system, while also improving public safety. It is co-chaired by state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and the governor's general counsel, Nicholas Brown, who is a former assistant U.S. Attorney.

On Thursday, representatives from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit group that provides policymakers with advice on public safety issues, presented research to the task force that offered some insight into the characteristics of Washington's prison population and how sentencing guidelines here stack up against other states.

Compared to other states, the Justice Center found that criminals in Washington receive a wider range of sentences, and that felons are significantly less likely to receive probation-style supervision as opposed to a jail or prison term. Meanwhile, about one third of people in the state's prisons in 2013 were there for lower-level offenses such as assault, burglary or theft. Washington also has the third highest property crime rate of any state in the nation.

"I think that the state, as it tries to manage the prison population, is going to have to wrestle with whether or not building the next prison is the best way to improve public safety, or if there are some strategies out there that could be more cost effective," said Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives for the Justice Center, during an interview earlier in the day.

The task force is still in the early stages of its work and no concrete policy options were floated on Thursday. But some of the discussion centered on whether treatment and supervision programs for low-level offenders were viable alternatives to incarceration.

Washington is one of 21 states with sentencing guidelines, but as the research presented on Thursday noted, the terms of these sentences can vary widely. Someone convicted of second-degree burglary in Washington could be sentenced to between 1 month and 68 months depending on their criminal history, without any option for probation. In contrast, the same crime in North Carolina would carry between a 10-month and a 30-month sentence, or could also result in between 10 months and 19 months of probation.

"We're really proud of Washington's sentencing system," said task force member Russ Hauge, who is Kitsap County's prosecuting attorney. He noted that compared to the federal prison system, a very low percentage of inmates were locked up in Washington for drug-related offenses. "The people in prison have earned their way there," Hauge added.

That said, given the state's financial constraints, he acknowledged that it might be time to consider treatment programs, rather than jail time for some low-level criminals. But he emphasized the importance of preserving tougher sentencing options for repeat offenders.

The task force will meet again in October. Their goal is to come up with a bill that can be presented during the next legislative session in early 2015.


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