Addressing police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors lobbying in Olympia, Gov. Chris Gregoire opened up the floor for questions. They had only one: whether she favors letting prisoners out early to save the state money.
An idea being fleshed out in the Legislature would release hundreds of inmates two to four months early next year.
Those at high risk for violent crimes would not be affected, nor would anyone convicted of murder or sex offenses.
Law enforcement groups oppose it as unsafe, but they extracted no promises Wednesday. The governor told them she has rejected the idea in the past but couldn’t speak for the future. “I will continue to say no,” Gregoire said, “up until (March 17).”
That’s how large this week looms in the eyes of state policymakers. Budget writers learn Thursday the latest projections for money coming in over the next 27 months and how far it falls short of projected needs. The gap is expected to deepen beyond $5 billion, perhaps way beyond.
And all ideas have to be on the metaphorical table, Gregoire told cops, even ideas she’s not crazy about.
During the recession nearly a decade ago, lawmakers saved money by increasing the time by which inmates could shorten their sentence through good behavior. The Legislature allowed the more generous good-behavior rules to expire last year and seems loath to bring them back.
But Sen. Adam Kline has offered up a new proposal: Cut sentences, then put something like half the savings toward the state’s bottom line while plowing the other half into treatment programs.
It’s a technique that the state-created Institute for Public Policy says, if done right, can save money while carrying a low risk of increasing crime rates. Some freed inmates would commit more crimes, but addiction or behavioral treatment programs would offset them by keeping other inmates out of trouble, institute director Steve Aos said. He hadn’t finished analyzing risk for Kline’s Senate Bill 5866.
The bill would release about 600 to 700 inmates early next year, state prison director Bernie Warner said. Kline said it would save about $16 million, with half dedicated to treatment.
Kline said it would be good policy even in the best of fiscal times.
“I would rather we treat people and bring them back to a life of productivity and normalcy, rather than incarcerate them,” the Seattle Democrat said.
Funding treatment and reserving prison for the worst criminals has helped push Washington’s crime rate down by more than one-third over the past two decades, the institute says.
That strategy of treating nonviolent offenders means Washington’s prison population of 17,000 is relatively low – and relatively violent – compared with that of other states. Opponents of early release say those who remain are too dangerous to release.
“You save money in the short run, but you cost society money in the long run,” Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said.
The two chairmen in the Senate and House with responsibility for the prison system differ. Sen. Jim Hargrove has signed on to Kline’s bill, while Rep. Chris Hurst says the state’s push to treat nonviolent offenders has worked great but is “maxed out.”
“If we go much deeper, you’re reaching people who cannot be treated,” said Hurst, a conservative Democrat from Enumclaw. “What we have left are people that would at the first opportunity, within hours of being released, would probably be raping, robbing, shooting or trying to murder someone.”
Inmates with histories of murder and sex offenses are ineligible for early release under the bill.
Corrections officials classify inmates based on their risk of returning to crime. Kline’s bill envisions shortening sentences of low-risk inmates by four months, moderate-risk inmates by three months and those deemed at high risk of committing nonviolent crimes by two months.
“These are not people who have a life sentence, and now we’re letting them out,” said Hargrove, D-Hoquiam. “They’re going to get out pretty darn quick anyway.”
Opposition from law enforcement could doom the bill. Lawmakers tend to listen.
“I don’t think we’d want to veer off very far from where those groups would be,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown told reporters Friday.