An intimidating list of high-profile challenges awaited new Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner when he assumed the job last July. The DOC, once immune from economic pressures, faced deep budget reductions. It also confronted lawsuits resulting from the Lakewood police murders, an internal ethics investigation, and staff safety concerns after an inmate killed a prison officer.
One year later, Warner appears to have the large and unwieldy DOC headed in the right direction.
The 56-year-old former state prisons director has used the last 12 months to transform the department into a more efficient organization focused on the highest-risk offenders and on programs that prepare inmates for a successful release into the community.
It hasn’t been an easy turnaround. Because of the high priority given to public safety, the DOC used to be considered a sacred cow when it came to budgeting and capital funding requests. Now, it has fewer dollars but no lesser expectation for public safety.
Warner has not been able to reduce DOC expenses by incarcerating fewer inmates. Washington already has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S., a result of our policy to imprison those most likely to re-offend. Of the nearly 18,000 offenders in confinement, for example, only 8.6 percent are serving time for drug crimes.
But the DOC met its financial targets by trimming $300 million from its budget, including a 20 percent reduction in work force and the closure of facilities in Spokane, Yakima and McNeil Island. It has reduced the average daily cost per inmate from $102 to $92.
Squeezing those 1,000 displaced inmates into the remaining 12 prisons has reduced staffing and operational costs, but it has created new challenges. Inmates used to be separated by certain criteria – the lifers went to Walla Walla, for example. Today there is a mix of violent and nonviolent inmates at every prison, placing new demands on fewer staff.
One of the department’s most effective reforms involves using swift and certain sanctions when an offender on parole or probation has violated terms of their supervision. In the past, these offenders were sent back to prison for 60, 90 or 120 days, which didn’t change their behavior and often resulted in the loss of jobs or progress in creating a stable lifestyle.
Under the new policy, violators are jailed immediately but only for one to three days. It has cut the number incarcerated at any given time by more than half and is saving about $40 million annually.
Typical of the DOC’s new direction under Warner and his team, a small portion of those funds are paying for a program aimed at correcting the offenders’ “thinking errors” to reduce the likelihood they will re-offend.
That re-engineering also includes other programs to help offenders support themselves once they are released, without resorting to criminal activity. The focus is on education – including vocational certification – substance abuse and sexual issues, as well as addressing the criminal thinking process.
If the Legislature found any new money for the DOC, Warner said it would first go into replacing the state’s many older facilities. The older buildings don’t have the technology or line-of-sight designs that enable newer facilities to operate with fewer staff, running their cost up to $105 per day per inmate. The newest prisons operate at $78.
The Department of Corrections should be commended for its recent innovations that have led to cost savings and maintaining public safety. But with prison populations projected to increase over the next decade, comprised primarily of high-risk, violent offenders, more changes are needed.
Some of those most important changes must come from legislative action and the balancing of public policy priorities against monetary restrictions, not from the Department of Corrections.