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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Ronal Serpas: Governor should sign incarceration reform bills

Ronal Serpas

I served in law enforcement for 35 years, and I know keeping our communities safe is the most important goal of the criminal justice system. A key element of that is supporting people who have paid their dues and are working to re-enter their communities. Gov. Inslee has an opportunity to do so now – by signing several bills that will help individuals who no longer pose a public safety risk to fully reintegrate into society more quickly.

We’ve come a long way since the conversation around criminal justice pitted “tough on crime” law enforcement and prosecutors against reform advocates. Today, we’re all working toward the same goals: less crime and less incarceration. I don’t just say that as an advocate for criminal justice reform – but as the former chief of the Washington State Patrol.

That’s why I am urging the governor to sign a trio of transformative community supervision reform bills (HB 2393, HB 2394 and HB 2417). These reforms are good for communities, good for taxpayers and critical to making communities safer.

According to a 2019 analysis by the Council of State Governments Justice Center for the Washington Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the number of people sitting in local jails every day for violating even the most minor of supervision technicalities has nearly tripled since 2014 and the overall supervision population has grown by nearly 20% – with no proven benefit to public safety.

Each year, this is trapping thousands of Washingtonians in a system designed for serious offenders and keeping community corrections officers from focusing their attention on individuals who need supervision or may be a possible public safety threat.

We can all agree that community supervision should be governed by clear rules that help keep us safe, but we must also be careful not to automatically send people to jail for something as minor as missing a meeting.

Every day, according to the Washington Department of Corrections, there are over 1,700 individuals in local jails due to supervision violations – and in many cases, they haven’t been charged with a new crime. House Bill 2417 would help address this by encouraging community corrections officers to use alternative sanctions for low-level violations (such as missing appointments or paperwork deadlines), instead of automatically sending people to jail. These officers will still have the discretion to briefly incarcerate individuals if necessary for public safety, but our overworked corrections officers should be allowed to focus on high-risk individuals rather than those who do not pose a public safety risk.

We should also recognize that the best way to keep formerly incarcerated people from reoffending is to ensure they have an opportunity to succeed in the community and get back on their feet. That means the more we can encourage positive behavior, the better. Finding stable employment, education and job training are the keys to reintegration success, and should be rewarded. And that’s exactly what HB 2393 would accomplish by incentivizing those on supervision to earn compliance credits to end their supervision early. HB 2394 would build on this by providing that multiple community supervision sentences are to be served concurrently – except in instances where courts determine that consecutive sentences would better serve a public safety interest.

While cost savings aren’t the main drivers for criminal justice reform, they’re a welcome benefit at a time of tight state budgets. By reducing incarceration, these bills are estimated to save between $15 million and $26 million per year for the Department of Corrections alone. Some savings should be reinvested in training community corrections officers in modern supervisory best practices. Reinvesting in front line officers will help them improve outcomes for more challenging and higher risk individuals while further decreasing recidivism and increasing savings. And this legislation would have the added economic benefits of getting more individuals off supervision and contributing to their communities.

The good news is these bills are well on their way to becoming law – they won the support of Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate in a highly partisan era.

I ask my friends and colleagues in the law enforcement community to join me in support of this legislation and urge Gov. Inslee to sign these landmark reforms quickly.

Ronal Serpas is the former chief of the Washington State Patrol, the former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, and the former chief of police in Nashville. He is also the executive director of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration.

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