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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Supervision program approved by Washington Legislature will try to stop career car thieves

Cars sit parked in the lot next to Grant Park and behind the Perry Street strip in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Cars sit parked in the lot next to Grant Park and behind the Perry Street strip in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Spokane officials are likely to get a chance to see if keeping a better watch on car thieves after they get out of prison will reduce the number of stolen cars in the community.

On a 96-2 vote, the House gave final passage and sent to Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday a new program that allows people convicted of motor vehicle theft to get out of prison early if they complete a community supervision program that could include counseling and drug treatment.

If it works on car thieves, the state could try it on those convicted of other property crimes. For the past decade, budget cuts have narrowed state supervision of released inmates to those convicted of violent crimes and those considered at high risk to commit more crimes.

Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl and Mayor David Condon made several trips to Olympia to ask legislators to create and pay for a program to supervise car thieves once they are out of prison.

After the bill passed Tuesday afternoon, Condon said the supervision program would make Spokane safer by “helping to break the cycle of reoffending.”

Last year, the Legislature considered a city-backed pilot program in Spokane, which has a high rate of motor vehicle thefts. It stalled, however, over concerns that such a limited program would create unequal treatment for car thieves from other parts of the state who wouldn’t be eligible for early release from prison because community supervision wasn’t available in the county where they were sentenced.

A new bill, designed to cut recidivism and contain costs by reducing the number of days an inmate spends in prison if they successfully complete a shorter stint in less-expensive community supervision, was proposed with Spokane-area Sens. Andy Billig, Mike Padden and Jeff Holy as three of the five sponsors.

City Councilman Breean Beggs called the new version an example of the city leading the way on a program that will now be statewide. “Providing re-entry services and accountability will reduce crime and save money for all taxpayers,” he predicted.

Most other states supervise car thieves after they are released, Councilwoman Candace Mumm said.

Earlier this year, Meidl told the House Public Safety Committee that Spokane has a group of about 25 career car thieves who are responsible for hundreds of crimes. One car thief, who concentrates on Subarus, claims to have stolen 130 vehicles of that make, sometimes just so he can get from one place to another.

The vast majority of the crimes are driven by drug addiction, Meidl said.

Because of that, the supervision program will include drug treatment and testing. Those who fail will be sent back to prison to finish their sentence, said Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick.

“Police are asking for this bill,” Klippert said.

House Public Safety Committee Chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said Washington has one of the longest periods of incarceration for people convicted of property crimes. It also has one of the highest recidivism rates for people who commit those crimes again after they are released. The state needs to try something new, he said.

Under the bill, a judge can order a convicted car thief to take part in a supervised community custody program of six to 12 months after serving at least half the total sentence. The Department of Corrections must develop a program and services, like job assistance and drug treatment, for the inmate before release.

An inmate who successfully completes the program can have as much as a third of the total sentence reduced.

The department must report by November 2025 on how effective community supervision is in reducing recidivism among car thieves. By then, the state should also have figures on whether the costs of supervision are offset by savings from the reduction in time an inmate stays in prison.

If it works, the program could be expanded to include those convicted of other property crimes, Goodman said.

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