OLYMPIA – A legislative proposal to release some inmates a few months early as a budget-saving measure is a bad idea, Washington prison officials warned Thursday.
The state already ordered early release for many nonviolent, low-risk inmates in previous years as a way to help balance other budgets. Those still behind bars are some of the highest-risk prisoners who were convicted of violent or sexual crimes, suffer from mental illness or have a high possibility of committing new crimes, Corrections Director Eldon Vail said.
“This is not a population we should let out of prison … until we absolutely must let them out,” Vail told the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
As part of a bill needed to implement proposed budget cuts, the Corrections Department could be ordered to release inmates who have less than a year left on their maximum sentence if they have already passed an early release date earned for good behavior and other benchmarks. Under the Senate proposal, releasing those prisoners could save the state an estimated $15 million in the next two years.
Donald Feist, a community corrections officer from Tacoma, said previous releases of nonviolent prisoners have whittled the prison population to “the worst of the worst” and letting the remaining prisoners out any sooner than absolutely necessary was irresponsible and dangerous. “We’re now to the point of jeopardizing our neighbors and our loved ones,” he said.
But the proposal only targets inmates who are going to be let out soon, anyway, said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. Even if they serve a full sentence, they’d get out in a few months when the state can no longer legally hold them.
Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the Senate’s budget relies less on savings from early releases of prisoners than the House proposal, and the amount could drop even more. But it’s not likely to drop to zero.
“We will have to come up with some kinds of reductions,” she said. “We are struggling to come up with a policy … in the most safety-conscious way.”