Politics & Government

Why is crime down but prison ranks growing?

Crime is down, way down, yet Washington prisons are busting at the seams, and prisoners are sleeping on floors.

To understand why, don’t look at murderers and sex offenders, new research indicates. Take a look at lower-level criminals, especially the ones who commit break-ins and other property crime.

Washington releases property offenders with no state supervision — even those deemed at high risk to return to crime.

“Other states take a more balanced approach to make sure folks aren’t just sanctioned but also held accountable upon release,” said Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives for the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Clement’s team is taking a microscope to Washington’s criminal justice system as part of a U.S. Department of Justice initiative.

It found that one driver of a growing prison population is repeat offenders committing lower-level crimes. Sentencing guidelines often require that they receive long sentences — two to three times as long as states like North Carolina and Kansas, Clement said — with no alternative of probation for a court to consider.

Yet long sentences don’t seem to have an effect on whether these repeat offenders return to crime yet again upon their release.

“You’re holding people a lot longer, but you’re seeing them reoffend at similar rates when they come out,” Clement said.

Researchers presented those findings Thursday to a state task force trying to come up with alternatives to opening a new prison.

With 17,485 inmates at the end of last year, the prison system is at 102 percent of capacity and headed upward. The Department of Corrections is looking for more room.

Washington actually has fewer inmates in prison as a share of its population than all but nine other states, according to a 2012 comparison by researchers. And the state’s prison population has been growing more slowly than the state’s population as a whole.

But the state closed prisons such as the one on McNeil Island as it managed recession-era budget cuts.

Expanding to house the 1,400 extra inmates that prisons are projected to contain in a decade would cost an estimated $387 million to $481 million.

That would start hitting at a time when Corrections is coming up with scenarios for Gov. Jay Inslee on how its budget could be cut to satisfy the need for more school spending — including early release, a shift of responsibility to local jails, or further cuts to already vastly scaled-back supervision requirements.

All this raises the incentive for policymakers to grapple with a head-scratcher: With the number of adult arrests falling a dramatic 22 percent over a decade, why hasn’t the adult prison population fallen with it?

Researchers say they have some of the answers, but the question is whether the Legislature will take measures that could be perceived as being weak on crime. The researchers haven’t made formal recommendations.

Some victims of crime are angry when they see offenders receive just supervision, said Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, one task force member.

But another, Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said that kind of sentencing approach can appeal to people — even those with a conservative, law-and-order bent — when it’s presented to them as an evidence-based way to reduce recidivism.

“I say, ‘I could give a rip about the offenders. What I give a rip about is them not offending you again,’ ” Hargrove said.

However, Hargrove said, the state shouldn’t add supervision just for supervision’s sake. Supervision with treatment is the key, he said.

The current sentencing system has its defenders, who note there are far fewer drug offenders entering prisons now than a decade ago.

“We worked pretty hard for sentencing policies that in the aggregate are very rational and have built our prison population into one of people that earned (their) way there, not because they have necessarily substance abuse problems, things like that,” said Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge, another task force member.

Hauge said the best way to deal with someone who has been a burglar since he was a teenager is probably to put him behind bars to remove the threat he poses for a while.

But for those whose histories are not so extreme, Hauge said he supports supervising them — giving them sentences that may not be harsh in locking them up, but are “harsh in demanding responsibility.”

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