Politics & Government

Early-release felons get rent subsidy

Some felons who have earned early release from prison are getting a few months of subsidized rent from Washington taxpayers, a new cost-cutting move expected to save the state $1.5 million by reducing the prison population.

The voucher program was approved earlier this year by the state Legislature, which needed to fix a roughly $9 billion state budget deficit. Before the program was in place, some inmates who had earned early release still couldn’t be let out of prison because they had no place to live.

By paying rent directly to an early-release felon’s landlord, the state avoids the higher costs of keeping those convicts behind bars. Inmates released under the voucher program are eligible for rent subsidies of up to $500 a month for three months – thousands of dollars less than the state would spend caring for them behind bars.

The Department of Corrections is expected to spend about $955,000 on rent vouchers for roughly 700 offenders through mid-2011, for an overall savings of about $1.5 million over the program’s first two years.

At present, rental aid is available only for inmates who have earned early release because of time served and good behavior but don’t have a home or enough money to rent one.

Eligible early-release inmates also must have a structured plan for supervision and treatment and must be monitored with GPS ankle bracelets for a period of time.

As of last week, the Department of Corrections had approved 31 inmates for rental assistance, The Herald newspaper of Everett reported Monday.

Moving out inmates who are in prison even though they’re eligible for early release could eventually save the state millions of dollars.

In 2008, the Corrections Department held 1,258 offenders past their earned early-release date. Had those inmates all been released when eligible, the state could have saved up to $13.5 million, The Herald reported.

Despite the state’s budget troubles, state corrections officials said they are not under pressure to quickly reach full capacity in the rental voucher program.

“We’re ramping up slowly enough so we can support (inmates’) release plan in ways that minimize their risk to the community and save money,” said Anmarie Aylward, administrator of the department’s offender treatment and re-entry programs.

But the program has some opponents, including state Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, the ranking Republican on the House public safety committee.

“I am watching this carefully,” Pearson told The Herald. “I didn’t support it, and if it is not going the way it should be, I’m going to try to end it.”