A plan state senators considered Thursday for cutting Department of Corrections costs was notable for what it didn't propose: knocking the last 60 days off inmate sentences.
That sentence-reduction idea was pitched as part of the bipartisan Senate budget plan and would have funneled most of the savings into crime-prevention programs.
The House budget went further, calling for shortening sentences by 120 days in a plan that would also affect more inmates. But House Democrats have been wrestling with the complications that go along with cutting 395 prison jobs, Rep. Jeannie Darneille said. And they aren’t sure if it has a chance of acceptance by the Senate where Republicans and moderates have more sway.
“I think it’s going to be very, very difficult,” said Rep. Chris Hurst, a Democrat from Enumclaw who chairs the House committee dealing with corrections. “If the Senate couldn’t even get it out of its own committee, I don’t know how far it’s going to go in budget negotiations.”
Senators heard from local governments, law enforcement and Gov. Chris Gregoire’s administration Thursday they were right to drop the shortened sentences, as debate shifted to a different early release plan that involves forcing prison officials to release inmates based on good-behavior time.
That idea drew fire Thursday from Gregoire’s Corrections Department, which wants to keep its ability to detain inmates past their earned release dates up until their original sentence is over. Inmates can now be held, for example, if they have no appropriate housing or treatment or they pose a particular danger.
The Senate budget calls for release of those inmates, unless their good-behavior dates come more than a year before their sentences are up. It would add money for housing vouchers to help with those who might otherwise become homeless.
Corrections officials said the releases threaten public safety, but senators including GOP budget writer Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield and Democrat Debbie Regala of Tacoma said the state eventually has to deal with that threat regardless of what lawmakers do. The inmates involved would be turned loose within a year anyway, they said.
“If your family member is a victim during that year,” Vail countered after the hearing, “you’re going to want to know, why didn’t they keep them locked up as long as you could?”
The proposal heard Thursday, Senate Bill 5891, would cut the prison population by 160 and the number of ex-convicts supervised by the department by 2,400, saving $15 million.
Most of the department’s supervision of inmates released from local jails – as opposed to state prisons – would end. Those seen as a high risk to commit new violent crimes and those with histories of domestic violence, among others, wouldn’t be affected.
The House budget calls for saving more than $26 million to help reduce the state’s $5.3 billion budget gap, while the Senate would redirect most of its smaller savings to treatment and juvenile-offender programs.
Both budgets exempt inmates convicted of violent and sex offenses, while the Senate proposal also adds an exception for inmates seen as a high risk to commit violent crimes upon release.
Just one Democrat signed her name to the bill that would implement the 120-day sentence reductions, Darneille, and while she didn’t rule out moving forward with it, she wasn’t mounting a strong defense of it Thursday.
“We kind of threw a lot of ideas out there,” she said. Now House budget writers are whittling down that list as part of negotiations: “We certainly would not be taking the time to move anything forward that had no chance for acceptance in the (Senate).”
Plus, it would be difficult to manage the closing of prison units and layoffs of corrections workers, Darneille said. Because employees who lose their jobs can “bump” into other positions, there’s a cascading effect on multiple prisons.
Darneille did voice support for the plan to send more inmates home on the release date they have earned.
“We’re an expensive hotel,” she said. “They’ve done their time.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org, blog.thenewstribune.com/politics