Our Voice: More supervision could reduce prison population

If the agenda stays as scheduled, members of the state House Committee on Public Safety have a chance this morning to save the state millions and improve people’s lives

They should take it.

The proposed legislation would offer more community supervision for released prisoners convicted of felony property crimes. This plan comes as a result of the governor‘s Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which was formed last summer and given the job of figuring out how to curb the rising prison population in Washington state.

What the group found was that Washington’s property crime rate is the highest in the country. Washington also is the only state in the country with sentencing guidelines that restrict its ability to supervise and offer treatment to those just getting out of prison.

This new law would allow those convicted of property crimes to receive more community supervision and less prison time.

While that may go against those who believe in punishment over counseling, that timeworn “tough on crime” stance has proven to be a costly and ineffective tool in cutting the state’s rising prison population rate. If the current strategy worked, Washington would not have the nation’s top property crime rate.

According to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative website, there has been a drop in the number of reported crimes and arrests, yet the prison population in Washington has continued to climb since 2000. Unless lawmakers try something different, the state’s prison population is projected to grow by 1,100 at a cost of $291 million, in part because of an increasing number of repeat property offenders being sentenced to lengthy prison stays, according to the task force.

If trends don’t change, there is concern a new state prison would have to be constructed, which the state estimates would cost $387 million to $481 million over the next 10 years.

Looking ahead at the rising prison population, Gov. Jay Inslee created a 21-member task force that included people from the legislative and judicial branches of government, as well as those involved in the criminal justice system. This group partnered with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The group used a data-driven approach to deciding how best to save the state money in prison costs as well as better protect community and help former prisoners live law-abiding lives after their release. This latest proposal is what they came up with. Task force members say this approach has been used in 20 other states around the country, including Texas, Kansas, North Carolina and Idaho and the results are promising.

The Senate already has approved similar legislation with wide bipartisan support, 40-9. Now it is the House’s turn.