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Sen. Mike Padden: Inslee puts public at risk with illogical inmate-release plan

Sen. Mike Padden

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Gov. Jay Inslee has required Washingtonians to make many sacrifices. From wearing masks in public and participating in religious celebrations via streaming to being confined to our homes thanks to social distancing, Washingtonians have generally been willing to do what it takes to make their families and communities safer.

Public safety itself is one sacrifice the people of this state should never be asked to make in the name of fighting COVID-19. Unfortunately, that is exactly the illogical step the governor is taking by having the Department of Corrections release more than 1,100 inmates who have yet to complete their full sentences.

This controversial move came in response to an order by our state Supreme Court for Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair to immediately take “all necessary steps” to protect inmates from the pandemic. However, the court’s opinion in no way ordered the immediate release of any inmates.

The governor’s ill-advised decision to simply release hundreds of inmates was the most extreme option available to him. DOC’s stated mission is to improve public safety, yet securing the early release for offenders is contrary to that goal. Washington’s offender recidivism rate is approximately 33%, so if DOC were to release offenders early, it nearly guarantees that at least one-third of those offenders would not comply with the terms of their release.

If the goal is to protect inmates from coronavirus, the DOC release plan is also illogical. The safest place to ensure offenders do not contract COVID-19 is within the confines of DOC correctional facilities. There, DOC maintains a well-stocked inventory of CDC-recommended personal protection equipment, conducts rigorous screening procedures for offenders and staff, and has implemented social-distancing protocols with strict adherence from staff and the offender population.

By contrast, putting these inmates back on the street leaves them without housing, a job, access to health care or the counseling they receive in prison. These inmates are one of the most unlikely groups to follow the stay-at-home order, putting themselves and the public at greater risk.

Inslee and Sinclair should have considered a host of more reasonable alternatives – ones that protect the health and safety of inmates while ensuring public safety by keeping better control over offenders.

These include expanding work-release placements through new contract procurement, or the use of secure portables on facility recreation grounds.

One alternative the governor should consider is transferring offenders to the Maple Lane corrections facility in southern Thurston County, which has already been identified by the state Department of Health as a possible isolation and quarantine site for COVID-19 patients.

DOC was previously approved for 128 new placements at Maple Lane and its central pharmacy is located on the Maple Lane campus, so access to necessary medicines would be nearly guaranteed.

Despite this almost-ideal alternative, the executive branch is moving forward with a reckless scheme to release felons early. Worse still, the administration is the ignoring the constitutional rights of victims to be consulted on the early release of offenders.

This isn’t the first time inmates in Washington have been released too soon in a way that risks public safety. More than 3,000 inmates were released prematurely due to a computer coding error, which lasted from 2002 to 2015.

As chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee in 2016, I led an investigation into the DOC scandal. What followed was a public outcry and backlash against the systematic failures we discovered, and the results of inmates being released before fulfilling their debt to society.

There were at least two deaths and numerous other crimes linked to inmates who should have been behind bars at the time – not to mention the costly lawsuits that forced the state to pay settlements totaling over a million dollars.

Now, this administration wants to create a similarly dangerous and costly situation – this time by executive order. This action is unacceptable, and the governor should change course before it’s too late.

The people have had to endure a lot already during this COVID-19 pandemic. They shouldn’t have to worry about another dangerous experiment with their safety.

Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) represents the 4th Legislative District and serves as the lead Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.