Prison Boom May Explode Tax-Cutting Laws Corrections Chief Sees Collision Between ‘Reality And Rhetoric’
Grandview Mayor Jesse Palacios was disappointed when Grays Harbor was picked over his town for a new state prison and its 635 new jobs.
Not to worry, though, the mayor reflected last week after hearing the news. The state’s 14th prison complex, a $160 million facility to hold 1,936 inmates, will not be the last.
“And we’ll be in line for the next one if that’s what the City Council wants,” Palacios says.
Prisons chief Chase Riveland agreed with Palacios on both points. There will be more prisons built and Grandview is an excellent site for one.
But while Palacios salivates at the prospect, Riveland gets heartburn over the public’s apparent appetite for more prisons to accommodate tougher sentences passed by the Legislature and citizens. He contrasts that with the public’s matching appetite for tax reductions and less government and wonders when the collision will come.
“The collision will come very soon, and we as a society will have to start making some tough choices,” predicts Senate Majority Leader Marcus Gaspard, D-Puyallup.
Every town’s gain is a drain on state taxpayers, and Riveland wonders where the state will find the money to continue building and operating prisons. They now hold about 11,000 people and are expected to house 14,000 by decade’s end.
Conservatives talk of squeezing fat from other state agencies to finance prison costs, but Riveland scoffs at that. “The ubiquitous fat we talk about, I just don’t see it,” he says.
“The real savings could be in dealing with some people in ways other than prisons, but we’re dealing in symbols, not reality. We just aren’t able to give our elected officials permission to put reality ahead of rhetoric,” he says.
Riveland, and his boss, Gov. Mike Lowry, want elected officials to start paying heed to what Riveland says is “excellent research” showing that some offenders - thieves, drug users - “can be successfully treated in the community” and make room in prison for violent predators to spend more time.
Riveland notes that drug offenders are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. Before 1987, drug offenders accounted for 4 percent of the population. Now they account for 25 percent, thanks largely to 1989 legislation toughening sentences for drug crimes.
House Law and Justice Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane, is among people who see the growth of inmate populations as good news, not bad. It means, he and others say, that the Legislature is succeeding in its war on crime.
Padden says the way to go is to keep squeezing criminals and search for ways to cut costs. They could include permitting the private sector to build and operate prisons with an estimated savings of 7 percent to 10 percent.
“I don’t agree that prison costs have to be as high as they are,” Padden says. Moreover, he adds, Riveland’s view that too many people are in prison doesn’t square with the public view. People want tougher sentences and are ready to pay the cost, Padden says. “People want to be safe in their homes, in their schools and on the streets,” said Senate budget chief Nita Rinehart. But that doesn’t mean they want to pay for keeping people in prison if they don’t need to be there, she adds.
“The public is a lot smarter than they’re given credit for, if they get the information they need,” she says.
Some of that information is working its way through legislative committees as lawmakers struggle with the issue.
The Department of Corrections operating budget, now at $680.7 million for the current fiscal biennium, is expected to swell to $1 billion by decade’s end. That’s nearly double the spending permitted under Initiative 601, the citizen-passed spending limit.
While the average annual cost of keeping an inmate is $23,500, when you add construction and operating costs and debt service, an inmate costs $1 million over 30 years.
The average cost of actively supervising an offender on the outside as an alternative to prison is $760 a year.