Senate report sounds alarm about effort to empty prisons, return felons to the street

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With goal of ‘reducing incarceration,’ governor and Legislature create new public safety risks

As if new restrictions on law enforcement weren’t enough, an effort by Washington lawmakers to empty prison cells and return convicted felons to the street is creating new public safety risks across the state.

That’s the conclusion of a Senate report released Wednesday about new challenges for the state Department of Corrections. 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.

Five years after that debacle, what Corrections did unintentionally is now a matter of official state policy. Last year the governor ordered a mass release of 1,000 prisoners at the peak of the COVID crisis, despite ample facilities to segregate stricken inmates, and the Legislature in 2018 launched a program designed to make early releases a matter of routine. This year majority lawmakers changed the rules to make an additional 3,000 inmates eligible for early release, while the Department of Corrections is readying a proposal for the Legislature to permanently reduce prison capacity by 3,300 beds. By reducing prison capacity, lawmakers would create pressure for further early releases and sentence reductions.

At the same time, majority lawmakers have pushed legislation to reduce criminal penalties, weakening such popular anti-crime statutes as “Three Strikes You’re Out.” This year they eliminated felony penalties for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, and made possession of hard drugs a barely-enforceable misdemeanor – police are allowed to take action only on the third offense.

“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, ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “This effort to create a kinder and gentler criminal justice system adds to the burden on law enforcement by putting convicted felons back on the streets sooner, and will inevitably contribute to a rising crime rate and more misery for the populace as a whole.

“The really chilling thing is that we didn’t seem to learn much from the early-release debacle at the Department of Corrections five years ago. Most of the reforms we recommended were never put into place due to opposition from the governor’s office. Since then, our colleagues seem to have decided Corrections is a human services agency dedicated to the welfare of inmates. Positive outcomes for convicted felons is a worthy goal, but it takes a back seat to the agency’s most important duty, the protection of public safety. And that means keeping convicts behind bars, where they belong.”

The new report, released by Sens. 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 in 2016 about the early-release debacle. In that deadly case, for 13 years erroneous computer programming caused DOC to miscalculate sentences for inmates convicted of sexual and violent crimes. Some were released as much as two years early. DOC was notified of its mistake in 2012 yet delayed a software fix for three years because it had other priorities. The inmates released early went on to commit a wide variety of crimes while they should have been behind bars, including vehicular homicide and murder.

“The state failed in numerous ways,” said Gildon, ranking Republican on the Senate Human Services, Reentry and Rehabilitation Committee. “Chiefly, it failed to ensure public safety by releasing individuals before completion of both their sentence and their program of rehabilitation. By doing so, the state essentially guaranteed their failure. We must learn from these mistakes and prioritize the safety of our residents.”

Wagoner, ranking Republican on the Behavioral Health Subcommittee to the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee, said, “Reducing our prison capacity is unsustainable and will eventually lead to dangerous overcrowding inside our facilities and increased crime in our communities.”

Senators released the report at a Wednesday online news conference. The news conference was taped by TVW, the state’s public affairs TV network, and can be viewed at the following link:

The report describes a series of Department of Corrections 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 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 Department of Corrections 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.