In Washington, the budget has gotten so tight that the Legislature is considering letting people out of jail early to cut costs. Struggling with limited funding, the Department of Corrections is counting on two bills before the House Ways and Means Committee to overhaul the way it deals with offenders.
Yet at their first hearing last week, the bills’ detractors gave what Spokane Republican Rep. Kevin Parker called “some of the harshest testimony I’ve ever heard.”
House Bill 2144 would reduce by 150 days the sentences of any prisoners the Department of Correction considers to be at a low to moderate risk of re-offending. This would save $10.6 million per fiscal year.
Even corrections Secretary Bernie Warner blanches at this bill.
“I have to say, in my 30-plus years in corrections, it makes it very difficult to support any legislation that would provide for early release of offenders,” Warner told the committee. “There just aren’t many options left for us to look at.”
Another bill, House Bill 2143, would drop the supervisory period for felony sex offenders to two years. Violent felons would only be supervised for one year.
It would also allow corrections department officers to immediately throw offenders in jail for only three days if they violate the conditions of their release. It’s an improvement, department officials say, because, under current practice, violators can wait in jail for much longer before getting a hearing.
This is a problem because that offenders will then come out homeless, jobless, and more likely to commit an even more serious offense, says Chad Lewis, a department spokesman.
“Research shows that shorter, swifter reaction time is better public policy,” Lewis says. It’s also becoming one of the only choices for the beleaguered agency, which, Warner told the committee, has seen nearly $300 million slashed from its budget.
As the budget has dropped, the department has slowly been rolling back its supervision of offenders, and now community corrections officers only monitor released offenders considered at the highest risk to reoffend. The bills would lower their supervisory standards even further, while redirecting money for rehabilitation programs.
“What we’ve told the Legislature is we either need to make some significant fundamental changes in how we supervise or just end it,” Lewis says.
Meanwhile, the Grays Harbor County prosecutor told the committee that if 2144 passed, he feared prosecutors would push for harsher sentences against offenders in order to keep them in jail for longer.
Spokane representatives on the committee who heard the bills were similarly unenthused.
“The Legislature does not want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish with public safety,” Parker says. He added that the potential savings afforded by the bills, estimated to be around $38.5 million per fiscal year, are somewhat minuscule compared with the $1.5 billion that the governor wants cut from the budget.
Spokane Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby characterized the bills (which are backed by Democratic lawmakers from western Washington) as being among many “dastardly” budget-slicing proposals he expects to hear during the session, but he adds that he’s reserving judgment until he’s seen all the options for cutting the budget.
Parker says he would prefer to kill the two bills.