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Corrections Costs to Soar, Study Warns
By Ed Penhale, P-I Reporter
Annual costs for running Washington's state and local corrections operations will rise by 50 percent over the next four years, adding $182 million a year to that expense by 1996, two corrections consultants said recently.
As state and local lawmakers grapple over how to spend public money in a period of declining revenue, the consultants' report raises policy questions of whether corrections operating costs can be reduced.
"It's a very tough situation for the Legislature to be in," said Christopher Murray, one of the authors of the report made public at a meeting of the Washington Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Unless state and local governments reduce prison and jail construction plans and divert a much higher percentage of offenders to community supervision programs, however, there's not much politicians can do about the rising costs, said Merlyn Bell, the other consultant involved in the state-funded study.
That's because 17 percent of all offenders in the state those who are in total confinement in jails or prisons account for 83 percent of total corrections operating costs, Bell said.
The remaining 83 percent who are on community supervision account for only 13 percent of the total statewide costs, the consultants said. Work-release programs account for the other 4 percent.
In examining capacity of state and local adult corrections systems, the consultants said they produced a first-of-its-kind report that involved the full range of corrections programs administrated by state and local governments.
They range from probation programs, electronic monitoring and work release to incarceration in mental institutions, local jails and state prison facilities. Running them all now costs about $1 million a day.
As of July 1 last year, 93,000 offenders were under some form of control by the criminal-justice system in Washington. By 1996 there will be 40,000 more, a 43 percent increase, the consultants said.
Rising costs for operating the expanding corrections system will fall mainly on the state - 72 percent of the $182 million-a-year increase. Counties will be hit by the rest.
The report's projections assume "business as usual" in sentencing practices, as well as continuation of present jail and prison construction plans.
The state, for example, has embarked on a $500 million construction plan to provide 3,400 beds, and King County is planning to provide 571 new beds in a $130 million regional criminal justice center that would include courtrooms and other facilities.
This year, state lawmakers may consider alternative sentencing guidelines that are being developed by the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission as a way to hold down the size of the state prison population The idea would be to reduce the minimum sentences for certain crimes when no acts of violence were involved.
But the consultants noted that public concerns about community protection could drown out any talk about reducing minimum prison terms.
In King County, where the county jail incarceration rate already is lowest in the state, steps that can be taken to hold down the jail population without putting the public at risk have been just about exhausted, said John Chelmaniak, spokesman for County Executive Tim Hill.
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