Politics & Government

State could soon release ill prisoners

OLYMPIA – About two dozen seriously ill prisoners in Washington state could soon be released – as long as their freedom is expected to save the cash-strapped state money.

A new state law, which takes effect Saturday, expands a current program to release chronically or terminally ill prisoners. Death row inmates, or those serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, are not eligible for early release.

Washington is among more than 30 states that have some form of early release program for seriously ill prisoners, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The move will save the Washington state Department of Corrections an estimated $800,000 over the next two years, mainly on things like prescription costs and transporting prisoners to off-prison medical treatment.

But the state Department of Social and Health Services estimates it could see significant increases in its budget if it has to place all of those released in state-paid nursing homes or provide additional mental health services – offsetting any savings and possibly adding more costs

That frustrates some lawmakers like Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup. He voted for the bill twice while it was moving through legislative committees, but voted against it on the House floor because of concerns over costs. The state had to make major cuts this year to patch a $9 billion budget deficit.

“I was prepared to speak out in support of this bill in our caucus room, and then as I reviewed the fiscal note again, it had changed,” Dammeier said. “It’s not clear-cut, it’s not easy to define, and it’s not going to clearly result in savings.”

The number of prisoners who would be released is unknown. Also unclear is how many of those released would end up relying on social safety net programs.

Even the state corrections chief admits the program expansion is a work in progress.

“We continue to think this will save the state money, but we won’t know that for sure until we’re down the road,” said Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail.

Under the law signed by Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire in May, the head of corrections can authorize early medical release only if certain conditions are met. The offender must have a serious medical condition that is expected “to require costly care or treatment.” They must pose a low risk to the community because they are physically incapacitated or expected to be. And the release must be expected to save the state money.

The department works to see if prisoners qualify for private or veteran’s health coverage. Barring other options, they arrange for Medicaid.

The main change to the current early release program, which has been in place since 1999, is that it no longer requires the prisoner be incapacitated before being approved for release.