Prison inmates convicted of murder and other violent crimes could be released without supervision if state lawmakers agree to a drastic set of cuts outlined by the state Department of Corrections.
Under one proposal, roughly 12,000 of the 17,000 felons now supervised in the state’s version of parole would be unsupervised upon release from prison, a move one Department of Corrections official called “devastating.”
Other “reduction alternatives” proposed by the DOC include increasing inmates’ health care co-pays to $4 from $3 and releasing inmates judged to be low and moderate risks to re-offend 120 days early, as long as they had not been convicted of a sex offense.
Hoping to head off some proposed cuts, Corrections officials are making budget trims in advance of the state Legislature’s special session set for the end of November. Among expenditures that could be on the chopping block is a 1,000-bed prison that the DOC plans to open in Western Washington by 2016.
The state, which is looking to cut nearly $2 billion from the budget this biennium, has asked nearly all major state agencies to submit budget plans reflecting both 5 percent and 10 percent across-the-board cuts.
The DOC’s budget for the current biennium, which ends in June 2013, is $1.6 billion. The department already has cut $250 million from its budget over the past three years by closing three prisons and slashing 1,200 jobs.
The deepest cut discussed by the DOC would be to the agency’s community corrections, or parole, division.
Under the worst-case scenario of a 10 percent cut, 12,000 convicts could be released from community supervision, a move that would save the state about $92 million over 18 months. It also would require laying off 510 DOC community corrections officers and support staff, Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said.
Under the 5 percent scenario, the DOC has proposed reducing the average length of community supervision from 16 months to six months. Corrections officials estimate the move would save almost $45 million over 18 months.
The 5 percent scenario would result in the loss of 260 jobs and a reduction in the amount of time felons are imprisoned for violating terms of their probation, DOC officials said.
Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents about 40,000 state workers, warns that the cuts to community corrections could endanger the public.
“We view it as wiping out community supervision, and that’s going to harm public safety,” Welch said. “It’s a neutron bomb against public safety.”
Welch, whose union represents about 1,200 community corrections employees, said the WSFE supports several options to achieve cost savings, including the possibility of putting a proposal before voters to raise taxes.
“It’s so devastating, I can’t imagine what community corrections would look like,” said Mark Janney, a community corrections supervisor who heads a DOC office in North Seattle. “We would be the Department of Prisons.”
Nearly 17,000 felons are supervised by community corrections officers, commonly known as parole officers in other states. Offenders released from a state prison or a county jail and placed on DOC supervision are required to follow stipulations ordered by a judge or the DOC.
Offenders who violate terms of their community supervision can face punishment, which can vary from increased reporting and mandatory drug treatment to incarceration for 30 to 90 days.
If the 10 percent proposal is approved, most sex offenders not still in prison, including those supervised by GPS tracking bracelets, no longer would be supervised.
Felons convicted of murder, kidnapping, assault and other violent crimes would also no longer be supervised upon release.
In addition to not having a probation officer with whom to check in, inmates being released would not have help finding services such as housing and treatment for mental health and substance abuse. Felons who would remain on community supervision would be drug and sex offenders court-ordered to serve a reduced sentence, which includes a combination of incarceration and treatment. Felons ordered to serve probation for out-of-state crimes also would remain on supervision.
“You’re talking about releasing inmates early, without any supervision. It’s just really frightening,” said Tracey Thompson, secretary of Teamsters Local 117, which represents about 5,500 corrections officers who work inside the prisons. “How much deeper can you cut in this area without significantly undermining public safety and staff safety?”
In the past, the DOC has been sued by victims of crime for failing to adequately supervise felons. In 2010, for example, the state paid $4.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a Burien woman who suffered brain injuries when she was struck by a car driven by a mentally ill felon under DOC supervision.
House Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, noted that the budget cuts will be painful for all state agencies. But, he said, lawmakers plan to review all 5 percent and 10 percent scenarios so they can “put things out on the table.”
“We’re not willing to create a safety problem for [prison] guards, but you have to cut something,” Hunter said, adding that cutting community supervision is “certainly a concern, but it’s not personally my biggest concern.”
“I would be more concerned about cuts to our higher-ed system and to our mental-health system,” he said.