Washington state’s prison population has become whiter and older in the past decade, and more of them are violent offenders, an Associated Press review of Department of Corrections records has found.
And while running the prison system eats up 5 percent of the state budget, there appear to be few places that funding can be cut without resorting to releasing inmates early, as some states have done.
“The main way to save money is to close a facility and lay off staff,” said Tom McBride, a spokesman for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, whose members are concerned the state is running out of prison beds. “When you look at our prison population, it’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t deserve to be there.”
Indeed, reforms started in the 1980s have dramatically changed the prison system’s population. While Washington has a relatively small prison population – about 17,000 for a state of 6.6 million people – the percentage of inmates serving time for violent crimes is higher than the national average.
The idea of releasing some inmates early to help reduce the projected $4.6 billion deficit in the next two-year state budget is being discussed in Olympia, officials say, although no bill has been introduced.
“We have taken no position on that,” said John Lane, of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s policy office.
At a legislative hearing on Wednesday, Steve Aos of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that cutting 60 days off the sentence of low- and moderate-risk offenders could save the state $4.6 million a year, with just a 15 percent probability that crime would rise as a result.
The Corrections Department cannot release inmates early without authorization from the Legislature.
The Corrections Department closed an expensive prison for elderly inmates in Yakima last year, consolidating most of those inmates at the Coyote Ridge prison near Pasco. It is now preparing to close the McNeil Island Corrections Center in Puget Sound in April.
The majority of the inmates in Washington prisons are being held for violent crimes like murder, rape and assault, according to figures provided by the state Department of Corrections. There were 11,835 inmates – 69 percent – serving time for violent crimes in 2010, and 5,240 (30 percent) serving time for drugs, property crimes or the category of “other.”
In 2000, 62 percent of Washington prison inmates were doing time for violent crimes and 37 percent for drugs, property crimes or “other.”
Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 52.4 percent of state prison inmates were doing time for violent crimes in 2008, the latest year available.
In Washington, the big change in the prison population has been the reduction of people serving time for drugs. That fell from 3,208 in 2000 – 21 percent of inmates – to 1,714 by 2010 – 10 percent of inmates.
The reduction is a result of various state laws that reduced sentences for many drug crimes while increasing them for violent crimes.
It’s not clear if more violent inmates mean that conditions inside the 13 prisons are more dangerous. Guard Jayme Biendl was strangled to death inside the chapel of the Monroe Correctional Complex on Jan. 29. Court records show inmate Byron Scherf – who is 52 and serving a life sentence for rape – confessed to detectives in a videotaped interview.
Biendl is the first corrections officer to be killed on the job in decades.
Officials at Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections officers, believe the prison population is more dangerous than it used to be. The closure of McNeil Island will only make that worse, said Tracey Thompson, chief executive officer of the union.
“Overcrowding with a lot more violent criminals in the system is going to be a recipe for disaster,” Thompson said.
The union also contends that too many prisoners are being reclassified by prison administrators from violent to non-violent, which allows them to be placed in the general population. Scherf, for instance, entered the prison system as a maximum security inmate but had been moved to medium security because of good behavior.
The union would like to see an overhaul of the classification system, she said.
The state is expected to have 2,000 more inmates by 2016, Thompson said.
The crime rate in the Evergreen State is the lowest in two decades. And the state ranks well below the national average in violent crime, mostly because violent offenders are locked away, McBride said. However, Washington suffers above-normal amounts of property crime because many of those offenders do not receive prison time, McBride said.