Politics & Government

Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to cut prison time for property crime draws mixed response

Supporters of less prison time and more probation for low-level criminals probably need county prosecutors on their side to help get their plan through the Legislature.

The reply from prosecutors: Show us the money.

Washington has the nation’s highest rate of reported property crimes such as thefts and burglaries, and the state mostly doesn’t monitor people convicted of such crimes after their release. Researchers say releasing them earlier but keeping an eye on them longer would reduce crime and prison costs.

Prosecutors like the idea of expanding supervision, but they want to avoid relying heavily on quick prison savings to pay for it.

“We may be onboard with this proposal,” said Tom McBride, executive leader of the prosecuting attorneys’ lobby, “but the big issue is, we need to see that the supervision and the programming is going to be funded and in place.”

“We’re just worried we’re getting sold kind of a pig in a poke.”

Prosecutors are just one voice in the debate over Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal to change how property crime offenders are held accountable. Others with a stake in the outcome include crime victims and the people with the ultimate say: state lawmakers, who are entering the second week of the 2015 legislative session.

Inslee’s administration insists its budget proposal would address prosecutors’ concerns by raising the money necessary to prevent crime.

If the Legislature approves, more than 70 community-corrections officers would be hired by 2017 to supervise an average of 1,281 more convicts at a time. Dozens more hires would follow in later budget cycles.

The nearly $7.7 million price tag for extra supervision in the next two-year budget cycle includes about $1 million for mental health and drug treatment and other programs, Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said.

“The governor’s budget really builds in the resources for us to do this in such a way that we can still focus on accountability,” Warner said.

Independent researchers at the Washington State Institute for Public Policy say the kind of risk-based programs that the Corrections Department uses in post-release supervision reduces crime by former offenders by 13 percent. That amounts to about 1,000 fewer crimes a year.

MORE PRISON TIME OR LESS?

Some crime victims are skeptical about the governor’s plan to de-emphasize prison time for property crime. Others are supportive.

Debbie Goetz said a neighbor raided her recycling bin outside her house in Tumwater to find financial information, then racked up thousands of dollars worth of online purchases in her name. Goetz said the neighbor disappeared without facing charges.

Goetz’s credit score suffered even after she recouped the money, but she recalls that her neighbor had fallen on hard times. The woman had been kicked out of college for poor grades, had maxed out her eligibility for welfare benefits and was using drugs, Goetz said.

Goetz doesn’t believe the woman, who also was a mom, should have gone to prison.

“I don’t believe that taking the parents away from the children is the right thing to do. They didn’t go out and murder anybody,” she said. “Yeah, they hurt (their victims), but I think they could have their mindset changed.”

David Warnick, by contrast, feels that property criminals too often get off with a slap on the wrist. Warnick still recalls the time 20 years ago he returned to his Lakewood home to find his toddler son’s room ransacked.

“He was afraid to sleep in his room for weeks after that,” Warnick said.

Like other victims of home break-ins, Warnick, now a DuPont resident, saw it as a violation of his person as much as his property.

For that reason, the sentencing plan as designed by a task force and backed by Inslee does not include home burglaries. Some members of the task force felt that omission was a mistake that could keep the plan from its intended goal of crime reduction.

Even with that omission, any change that is perceived as easing punishment might be a tough sell, despite promises of more supervision for all and swift sanctions for those who reoffend.

The sentencing plan put forward has some backers with law-enforcement credentials, such as former Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge and Kennewick Republican Rep. Brad Klippert, a Benton County sheriff’s deputy.

But Klippert conditioned his support on winning over the chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, Mike Padden.

For now, Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican, wants to go in the opposite direction.

He says the best way to lower property crime is a proposal he pitched last year: lengthening sentences by up to two years for offenders with many convictions.

That would add to pressure for more prison space, but Padden said it’s reasonable to expand a prison after the Legislature closed three during recession-era budget cuts, including the one on McNeil Island.

“If you get the repeat guys off the street, law enforcement tells me the rates go down,” Padden said.

The two proposals are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Lawmakers, for example, could decide to lower prison time for the first few offenses and increase it for habitual offenders.

WHERE THE MONEY GOES

Prosecutors are worried Inslee’s two-year budget calls for only $1.4 million in extra money for supervision, with the rest of the $7.7 million coming in the form of savings from “avoided” prison costs.

Such savings in the prison system are hard to visualize. It’s not as if cell blocks would close. The system is strapped for space, running about 300 inmates above capacity with projections of 1,300 extra inmates by 2024 if nothing is done. Some inmates have been sleeping on floors.

By way of analogy, McBride said he’s thinking about buying a motor home. If he decides to skip it, he said, he can’t claim he just made $20,000.

Can lawmakers claim to find money by avoiding building a new prison?

In a way, they can. The Legislature’s budget will have to account for a growing population of inmates and other needs under current law, allocating tens of millions of dollars before even considering policy changes.

That money would go partly to pay for new prison space — possibly by contracting with local jails for beds — but if the Legislature follows Inslee’s budget, it would redirect some of the money to expanded supervision.

“We’re going to scrub those numbers carefully,” said Sen. Jim Hargrove, a Hoquiam Democrat who co-led the task force that came up with the recommendations.

The probation-for-prison swap is just one of several strategies in Inslee’s budget for avoiding prison growth. It also calls for reducing penalties for drug possession and letting inmates earn early release for good behavior even when they are serving time for weapons-related sentence enhancements.

Even if lawmakers agree to all of that, Inslee’s budget still anticipates a space crunch.

The property-crime proposal would mainly reduce the need for minimum-security space. But the major driver of prison expansion is an increase in medium-security male inmates.

Inslee wants more than $7 million to contract for more prison space and another $8 million to design either the expansion of a prison or a new one, possibly at the site of a former juvenile lockup in Thurston County, at Grand Mound.

Budget writers looking for more money for schools will try to avoid an expansion of prisons.

Still, Hargrove said the property-crime plan is not primarily aimed at saving money. The vast majority of prisoners get out of prison eventually, he said, and lawmakers need to address what happens to them back in society.

“The whole reason to do this,” he said, “is to reduce crime and reduce victims.”

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