It turns out Washington state’s budget crunch may not be a problem for everyone. For some, it’s likely to be a key to freedom.
Speaking to The Spokesman-Review editorial board last week, Secretary of Corrections Eldon Vail said he dislikes early-release strategies but the kind of incremental budget cuts that have been implemented in the past couple of years are no longer enough. Now, it’s going to take population reductions, i.e., letting inmates go.
The Legislature appears to be on board, but as the House and Senate work out the details, some approaches will be more objectionable than others. Yes, the 18,000 offenders now incarcerated in a dozen state institutions cost taxpayers about $35,000 a year each for upkeep, but public safety must be a major consideration in any final decision.
Some methods are less controversial than others. For example, the state could reduce its average daily population (the operative statistic) by 130 if it turned illegal immigrants serving time for nonviolent crimes over to federal immigration authorities for deportation.
Beyond that it gets dicey.
At the other, dangerous end of the spectrum is a Senate plan for releasing certain violent offenders up to a year early, even though they are considered at high risk to reoffend.
That idea is a response to the difficulty the state now has finding residential placements for inmates whose conduct while in custody has earned them early release into a structured setting. If housing can’t be found and an inmate is within a year of serving his full sentence, the Senate proposal would let him go free with no further supervision.
As the third-ranking county in the state in terms of where inmates are released, Spokane County has special reason to be concerned about such a reckless notion.
While studies have shown that early-release programs do not inherently lead to increased criminal activity or threats to public safety, that depends a lot on the nature of the criminals involved. And in recent years, the cost of incarceration has driven states like Washington to be more selective about the kinds of offenses – and offenders – that warrant prison sentences.
About 70 percent of the population now in the state system is there for violent crimes, Vail said, and most of the rest have violent offenses in their backgrounds. It’s getting harder and harder to find low-risk offenders whose confinement doesn’t justify the public cost.
The necessity for budget controls requires lawmakers to consider otherwise unattractive measures – within reason. They still must respect public safety enough to make sure high-risk offenders are ineligible for early release.