Politics & Government

More supervision, less prison time sought for low-level criminals

Washington led the nation last year in property crimes. That dubious distinction, based on the rate per person of thefts, burglaries and stolen cars reported to police, could be a big reason the state’s prisons are bursting at the seams.

The problem, according to researchers, is that no one is watching property offenders. Over the decades, the Legislature has abolished post-prison and post-jail supervision for property crimes except those with special drug sentences.

Lower-level ex-convicts in Washington are more likely than more serious offenders to be arrested and re-imprisoned, and their histories saddle them with longer sentences that are more likely to send them to state prisons rather than local jails and to keep them there longer. The result, researchers say: Repeat property offenders are driving growth in the prison population.

That has state lawmakers taking notice and considering reversing course — with a new sentencing scheme for property crimes that would mandate supervision while dramatically scaling back jail and prison time.

“You’re actually getting more community safety if you give these guys less jail time but keep an eye on them longer,” said Nick Brown, general counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee. The Democratic governor backs the new sentencing “grid.”

“We have the nation’s worst property crime, and what we’ve been doing, therefore, is not working,” Brown said.

It’s not that crime is shooting up in Washington, but by staying roughly flat here as it has dropped elsewhere, the rate of the three key property crimes in 2013 is now 37 percent higher than the national average.

The proposed grid is the centerpiece of a proposal that aims to reduce the rate 15 percent by 2021. It has an estimated price tag over those six years of $80 million, while aiming to avoid as much as $291 million in the costs of building and operating a new prison.

A team from the nonpartisan Council of State Governments devised the plan as part of a project launched in 2010 by the U.S. Justice Department to reduce corrections spending and deter crime. The project has led to laws in other participating states.

A task force co-chaired by Brown backed most of the plan this month with some reservations but no outright dissent.

The support came from Democrats from urban and rural areas, a House Republican and a county prosecutor, among others — perhaps echoing a bipartisan national rethinking of lock-’em-up policies in an era of lower crime.

“I think in the Republican caucus we feel very firmly about being strong on crime, but at the same time we want to be not just harder on crime but smarter on crime,” task force member and GOP Rep. Brad Klippert said.

That doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing ahead for the plan. Cracks in support appeared quickly after the task force’s nod of approval, after Klippert noticed the proposed grid would set minimum time behind bars at zero for many offenders.

Even with a mandatory year of Corrections Department supervision for many of those offenders, and even though judges could set sentences higher in proposed ranges, zero time in jail is “just not acceptable,” said Klippert, a sheriff’s deputy from Kennewick. Even a short time in jail can change someone’s behavior, he said.

Klippert said he has no problem with reducing, rather than eliminating, jail time.

But scaling back sentences without eliminating them could add costs for local jails. The new grid was designed to replace many prison sentences with shorter jail sentences, while reducing jail sentences enough to offset the burden on counties.

Others were wondering in the week after the task force’s decision if the changes go far enough.

The proposed grid would leave unchanged one major category of property crime, residential burglary, under the premise that home break-ins are more likely to lead to violent confrontation.

That disappointed task force member and Thurston County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe, who said it’s often kids or the mentally ill who break into houses.

“By taking it out, it seems like those people are going to continue to be caught up in the system of being incarcerated,” Wolfe said. “It kind of makes it almost useless, and the data apparently supported all property crimes (being placed on the new grid), including residential burglary.”

But she said she’s glad the state is focusing on imprisoning “people that we’re afraid of and not just people we’re mad at” — as long as it follows through with enough money to pay for the changes.

County officials are skeptical on that score, knowing lawmakers have a history of cutting supervision to balance the state budget.

What’s more, many people will recall crimes committed by people who were supposedly being supervised by the state but slipped through the cracks. Washington has a long history of largely meaningless supervision, task force member and Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge told the group.

But that has changed, Council of State Governments researchers told the task force. Compared to other states, Washington’s supervision is now based on research about what works, such as risk assessments of offenders, they said.

All of the more than 2,000 property offenders who would be sentenced to yearlong supervision terms under the proposal would receive regular monitoring, counseling, drug testing, and swift and certain sanctions for violations, researchers said.