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Washington's DOC Boss Talks That Talk. Can He Walk That Walk?

Amonth or so ago Chase Riveland, the Washington state's chief corrections officer, went to Washington, D.C. for what he thought would be a dialogue, an exchange of ideas about crime and punishment. Instead he got a U.S. Justice Department monologue, a sermon on how to lock up more people.

Riveland believes the national monologue on corrections has gone on long enough. He wants to help start a debate. Few dare to challenge the get-tough talk, despite mounting evidence that existing policies are not working and that we cannot afford them--in either human or dollar terms.

After years of law-and-order policies at all levels of government, a so-called war on drugs, sentencing reforms and construction of thousands of new prison cells, crime rates continue to rise.

Offended by the Justice Department sham conference, Riveland said, "It's time to ask if we're getting what we're paying for."

Here's what we're getting: Violent crimes in Washington were up 7.1 percent last year over the previous year, mirroring the national trend. According to the latest figures from the Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, over the decade, 1981-1991, violent crimes rose 40.9 percent while the state's population increased by 17.7 percent.

Here's what we're paying for: New state prisons and additions to existing ones to house over 12,000 inmates by 1995, nearly double the inmate population in 1990. The price tag is $1 billion.

State prison population is projected to grow at least another 2,000 by the year 2000. Riveland warns that "prison population forecasts are terribly accurate."

He noted, with hyperbolic irony, that if the prison population trend of the late '80s and early '90s were to continue for the next 50 years, "everyone in Washington would be in prison."

It's a frenzy that leads to more than just construction costs. Someone has to run the prisons.

In the 1989-91 biennium the operating budget for the Department of Corrections was $440 million. Under those "terribly accurate" inmate population projects, the department will need more than a $1 billion annual operating budget by the 1997-99 biennium. And that assumes no new laws will be passed increasing prison population. No legislature in 70 years has refrained from doing that, he said.

Worse yet, none of this includes costs to build and operate new city and county jails across the state.

Central to the debate Riveland wants to start are these facts:

The state spends an average of $4,000 a year on each student in the K-12 educational system.

It spends an average of $26,000 a year on each inmate in the state's correction system.

Enrollment is capped on the state's colleges and universities while prison population expands unchecked.

Riveland calls those facts "a confusing message about our priorities."

As Riveland said in a letter to U.S. Attorney William Barr after the recent Justice Department conference, "the incarceration of millions of Americans should be treated with alarm and concern, not with self-righteous smugness."

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