As a community corrections officer, Robin McLaughlin supervises 30 convicted felons living in East Pierce County.
She sees them once a month at the state Department of Corrections’ Puyallup field office and twice a month in the community. She tries to ensure that they meet conditions of their probation and stay away from drugs and other negative influences.
She helps offenders find anger-management programs, drug and alcohol counseling or domestic-violence treatment. Some offenders have families and solid support and do well. Others need more help and slide back into old habits.
“They get out in the real world and it’s hard to deal with,” McLaughlin said recently.
Budget cutbacks are making that effort harder, and the situation could get harder still.
“I have nothing to refer them to,” McLaughlin said. “They just keep getting whittled down and whittled down.”
The Legislature is looking to trim nearly $2 billion from the state budget, leaving in jeopardy the Corrections Department’s $27 million community corrections program.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed scaling back supervision of convicted offenders once they serve their sentences, and cutting back chemical dependency programs.
Her proposal, part of the special Legislative session that began Nov. 28, would cut nearly $72 million from the Corrections Department’s $1.6 billion, two-year budget.
If the cuts are adopted, the length of post-incarceration supervision for most offenders would drop from an average of 16 months to 12 months. Sex offenders would be supervised for two years instead of three.
The proposal also calls for:
• Using evidence-based research to revamp community supervision.
• Cutting more than $5 million from chemical dependency programs for offenders in prison and on community supervision.
• Releasing from incarceration 150 days early offenders assessed as being low-to-moderate risks of committing new crimes. The move would allow closing minimum security units in prisons.
Gregoire has proposed temporarily raising the state sales tax by a half-penny to help restore some proposed cuts, including those to community supervision.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs supports the tax increase to prevent deeper cuts to crime-prevention programs, including community corrections.
“Either way community corrections will look fundamentally different,” said Corrections Department spokesman Chad Lewis.
‘TRIMMING FOR YEARS’
Over the past decade, community supervision has been scaled back because of budget cuts and law changes.
Ten years ago, the Corrections Department supervised 65,000 felons statewide. Supervision was longer, lasting three to four years for offenders who broke the rules of their supervision and landed back in jail, Lewis said.
In 2003 and 2009, legislators ended supervision of offenders believed to be the lowest risk of committing new crimes. Community corrections officers’ caseloads went from being in the hundreds to a couple dozen, Lewis said.
“While research shows close supervision of high-risk offenders reduces recidivism, there’s no research that shows minimal supervision of low-risk offenders had any impact on public safety,” he said.
Today, about 800 community corrections officers supervise more than 16,000 felons after they are released from jail or prison. About 2,800 offenders are in Pierce County and 750 in Thurston County, Lewis said.
The offenders, those considered a high risk of committing new crimes, are divided into two categories – violent and nonviolent.
“We have been trimming for years,” Lewis said.
McLaughlin said some offenders struggle more than others.
One seemed to be doing well after his release from prison but then started using drugs and having mental-health issues.
He eventually assaulted his mother and was put back behind bars, McLaughlin said.
“There are going to be guys who do well whether they have support or not,” she said. “There are going to be guys who get out and want to continue that lifestyle.”
NEW WAYS TO SUPERVISE
Corrections officials have been reviewing research on felons and exploring ways to make community supervision more effective.
“Supervision is most needed and most effective when an offender first comes out of prison,” Lewis said.
Just being on the lookout for violations doesn’t improve an offender’s behavior, but swift and certain confinement can be effective when a violation is found, he said.
Now, violators face sanctions ranging from treatment referrals to jail time, often doled out in 30-day increments, Lewis said.
The department is looking at decreasing the number of days an offender might be in jail for a violation and making the sanction immediate.
“If you spend 90 days in jail, you are more likely to not have a job, a place to stay and are more a threat to public safety,” Lewis said.
An offender locked up for 48 to 72 hours for a violation might keep his job, he said.
“You might go to jail more frequently but for shorter periods of time,” Lewis said.
The change could lower the amount of money the department pays for jail beds in county lockups.
“It saves money because you don’t have to reserve as many jail beds,” Lewis said.
Some changes likely will happen regardless of the budget battle in Olympia.
The department’s Puyallup field office, for instance, plans to start holding out-of-custody hearings for the nearly 300 offenders it supervises. The twice-a-month hearings will be for offenders who violate their supervision, said Kristine Skipworth, a community corrections supervisor in Puyallup
Offenders will get a quick sanction and not necessarily be thrown in jail.
“This is good policy that we would support even if we were not in a budget crisis,” Lewis said.