July 7, 2012 in Opinion

Corrections on right path

Bernie Warner

For years there has been public demand for more efficient and effective strategies that are smart on crime.

At the Washington state Department of Corrections, we couldn’t agree more. In fact we’ve been reviewing our priorities for many years now, and today we’re seeing positive results across the state, including Spokane County.

In recent years, as the state revenue continued to decline and our budget continued to shrink, we did more than simply look for ways to reduce spending. We used the opportunity to reform the Department of Corrections into an agency that is more efficient, more effective and better equipped to manage a higher-risk offender population.

While the impact of continuous budget cuts was devastating to our staff – closing three prisons, eliminating nearly 1,500 positions, reducing spending by nearly $300 million – we helped balance the state budget without significantly impacting public safety, and increased staff safety at the same time. We also emerged as an agency that is more focused than ever on the higher-risk offenders.

Many people assume that states can save millions of dollars by no longer incarcerating low-risk, nonviolent offenders, particularly those convicted of drug crimes. While that might be the case in some states, Washington has long had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation. The overwhelming majority of the 16,000 offenders in Washington prisons today – about 70 percent – are serving sentences for violent crimes, and about half of the remaining 30 percent have committed violent crimes in the past. Only about 8 percent of Washington offenders are serving prison sentences for drug crimes.

The same is true in community corrections, where we now focus more of our resources on supervising those offenders who are considered the highest risk to commit a new crime. Whereas three years ago when we had some community corrections officers who had unmanageable caseloads of 350 lower-risk offenders, today our officers have more consistent and manageable caseloads of about 40 offenders each.

In all of our divisions we have done much to make our operations as efficient as possible while ensuring public and staff safety. Even as health care and food costs dramatically increased in recent years, the average daily cost of incarceration in Washington dropped from $102 to $92 per offender.

We are in the process of re-engineering the way we supervise offenders in communities across the state – including the 1,500 offenders we supervise in Spokane County – which will both reduce costs and increase public safety. By using swift and certain sanctions when offenders violate the terms of their supervision – which has proven to be highly successful in other states and a pilot project in Seattle at increasing offender compliance – we will reduce the amount the state spends on confinement. And we will invest some of those savings into evidence-based programs that directly target the offenders’ criminal thinking to reduce the likelihood that they will commit a new crime once they complete their community supervision.

At Airway Heights Corrections Center, we recently started a pilot project that will ensure that evidence-based programs that address offenders’ criminal thinking are focused on higher-risk offenders who are near their release dates. We are also installing a Quality Assurance program to make sure that we apply those programs correctly across the state to be as efficient and effective as possible.

Many of the improvements we made, particularly in community corrections, required legislative action that would not have been possible without Gov. Chris Gregoire’s support. If you look at almost any measurement – staff safety, efficiency, recidivism, health care costs, sustainability – you’ll see that the Department of Corrections is a better agency today than it was eight years ago. She deserves credit for a strong and consistent commitment to public safety, even during a historic recession.

Of course, any success we’ve had is ultimately the result of hard work by our staff, the men and women who effectively manage high-risk offenders in prisons and communities each day. Our neighborhoods are safer thanks to the work they do.

Bernie Warner is secretary of the Washington state Department of Corrections.

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