Four years after shifting the flow of criminals from the state's custody away from Pierce County, lawmakers say the restrictions are working and want to expand them.
Among other things, the “fair-share” law passed in 2007 required inmates released from the state’s prisons to go back to the county that sent them there, instead of being concentrated in counties such as Pierce and Spokane that tended to have more corrections programs.
The Senate voted unanimously this week to set similar requirements for “criminally insane” patients being released from the state psychiatric hospitals – released often into Pierce and Spokane counties, which are home to the hospitals.
More than 120 of these patients are locked up in secure wards having pleaded not guilty to criminal charges by reason of insanity. Only a handful are released each year, but Sen. Mike Carrell said it’s enough to threaten the safety of the counties where they cluster.
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“It is an incredible burden on local governments, because these are individuals who are high-maintenance,” said Carrell, a Lakewood Republican and author of Senate Bill 5105, which now goes to the House. “These are individuals that have done crimes like rape, murder, assault with a deadly weapon, arson.”
In 2007 and 2008, 12 of the 15 such patients released from Western State Hospital were slated to end up in Pierce County, even though only one of them originated from the county.
The conditions of their release are up to a judge, who takes into account recommendations from the hospitals. Officials at the Lake-wood facility say they have been working for two years to make sure more patients go back to their home counties.
The statistics indicate their efforts may be diverting people away from Pierce County. In 2009 and 2010, just four of 14 released patients were due to end up in the county. Still, just one person in that group came from Pierce County originally.
One reason the county remains a destination for some: After their official release but before they leave, patients generally spend time in a community program on the grounds of the hospital. In that transitional spot, they are less tightly monitored and can gradually pick up more privileges, often leaving during the day to go to work or attend treatment.
When that period is over, some stay in the area to keep their jobs or routines, said Marylouise Jones, clinical operations director at the hospital.
"They kind of develop some roots in Pierce County that are actually stabilizing them,” she said. “Folks may (decide), boy, this is the best place for them.”
By that time, a judge has declared them safe enough for release. They pose a low risk of offending again, she said.
Carrell’s bill would forbid the hospitals, run by the Department of Social and Health Services, from recommending release to a county other than the one that ordered the patient’s commitment to the hospital to begin with.
Exceptions are possible if treatment isn’t available in home counties, if patients’ families live elsewhere or if there are worries that going back home would mean living near victims.
FAIR SHARE REVISITED
Carrell says the Department of Corrections has moved away from making Pierce County a dumping ground for felons coming out of Washington’s prisons. He credits the new rules he pushed along with a couple of Tacoma Democrats, then-Rep. Steve Conway, now a senator, and Sen. Debbie Re-gala.
Of the prisoners released in November, December and January who went to a county other than the one they came from, 17 went to Pierce County, but another 16 originally from Pierce County went elsewhere – roughly an even trade.
Earlier, during the first 27 months after the law took effect, 177 released prisoners were moved into the county. Slightly fewer, 158, were moved out.
“Once they got used to it, there’s not been any problems that I can determine,” Carrell said. “it just couldn’t have worked out better.”