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Washington State's Changes to Good Time Laws Benefit Few

On May 20, 2003, Washington state governor Gary Locke signed into law Senate Bill 5990, which works numerous changes to the amount of good time prisoners in the state can receive. The new law, passed by 43-4 and 84-13 votes in the Senate and House respectively, increases the amount of good time received by some prisoners, while decreasing that afforded to others.

Previous to this legislation, Washington's good time laws allowed all prisoners who committed crimes before 1990 a 33% reduction of their sentences through good time. The law then changed to reduce to 15% the amount of good time a prisoner convicted of a "Class A" or "serious violent" offense (such as murder, rape, or kidnapping) can earn.

SB5990 increases the maximum allowable good time to 50% for certain, non-violent prisoners. At the same time, the law decreases the good time for serious violent, Class A, and sex offenders to 10%. The law took effect July 1, 2003, and only the portion of the law increasing the good time to 50% will be applied retroactively to those already serving sentences. The portion decreasing the good time to 10% applies only to those defendants who committed crimes after July 1, 2003.

But while the new law gives the appearance of increasing good time for some prisoners, so many conditions have been written into the law that it will actually benefit very few.

For example, to be eligible for the 50% sentence reduction, a prisoner cannot be currently serving time or have a previous conviction for any of the following: A sex offense; a violent offense; any "crime against persons" as defined in RCW 9.94A.411 (a long list of crimes); a domestic violence felony; residential burglary; possession, delivery or manufacture of methamphetamines; or delivery of any controlled substance to a minor. Even if a prisoner meets all of these conditions, however, he or she is still not guaranteed halr-time. The law has one more caveat.

SB 5990 directs the state DOC to perform what is known as a risk assessment test on every prisoner who would otherwise qualify for half time. The assessment, which is apparently done in secret outside the presence and without the knowledge of the affected prisoner, purportedly determines the likelihood of recidivism. Results are then broken down into four categories. Prisoners are assigned a "risk management" level of either A, B, C or D. The new law directs that only those prisoners falling into one of the two lowest risk categories (C or D) qualify for the increased good time.

Although some authorities predict about 600 prisoners would be released early, saving the state nearly $50 million, the actual number of persons affected and the actual cost savings to the state would appear to be much less. First. The law essentially gives the DOC the discretion to decide who does and who doesn't get half time, simply by assigning a risk management level. This assessment is done by some unknown person and gives the prisoner no right to appeal or object to the decision. Second, nearly all prisoners have been convicted at some time of at least one of the laundry list of offenses that prelude eligibility for half time. And third, because non-violent, property and drug offenders in Washington are rarely sentenced to prison in the first place, the law is unlikely to result in any significant staffing or other cost reductions.

Indeed, when the law took effect only 283 prisoners saw freedom, with 180 of those being drug offenders subject to INS holds and deportation. The remainder of those released were convicted of burglary (18), possession of stolen property (17), theft (14), forgery (14), firearms crimes (15), assault (2), or other felonies (31). While some of these prisoners had sentence reductions of as much as six months, most saw only a one to three month cut.

Some state officials were dissatisfied with the new law. "These are not first time offenders," complained Jim Nagle, prosecutor for Walla Walla County. "These are people who were on their fifth or sixth car theft or forgery, and now we'll just have to deal with them again."

But Doug Hasselbach, the man in charge of coordinating the new law for the DOC, said not all of the released prisoners are repeat offenders. "Even if they're repeat offenders, they're the ones less likely to do acts of violence," he said.

That fact did not stop nine Western Washington sheriffs from gathering at the Monroe Corrections Complex on July 8th to protest the new law. The sheriffs contended that by releasing these prisoners early, the state is putting their problems back in the hand of local jurisdictions. They said local police, prosecutors and jails are already overcrowded and are facing budget problems of their own.

State Rep. Al O'Brien said the state has its own multi-million dollar budget deficit and had little choice other than releasing some prisoners. "I understand the concern, but& this was the best we could do. If we had cash and the recession wasn't here, these guys wouldn't get out," said O'Brien, a former Seattle police sergeant.

"We, as the public, are going to get the amount of justice we are willing to pay for," said Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Mark Roe. Any significant savings, though, are unlikely to result from the bill. Most prison costs are fixed and driven by staffing levels. Unless entire units or prisons are closed, the only money saved is the cost of feeding, clothing, and medically treating the prisoner, which is nominal in most cases. Moreover, the bulk of the released prisoners are untreated drug addicts who will most likely be quickly charged with new crimes driven by their addictions.

At the same time, in March of 2003, Washington sent 240 prisoners to Nevada prisons to relieve overcrowding, while at the same time continuing the expansion and growth of the Washington prison system.

SB 5990 also eliminated post-release supervision for many prisoners. While this may turn out to be a true cost cutting measure in the short term, the cost savings will only result from the state's desire to reduce its liability for crimes committed by parolees.

In addition to the changes to the good time rules, SB 5990 also reworked the state's labor and industries laws. The new law now allows the DOC to deduct 35% from any worker's compensation benefits that a prisoner may receive while incarcerated. The new L&I law is apparently an attempt by the legislature to contravene the state supreme court's decision in Willoughby v. Department of Labor and Industries, 57 P.3d 611 (Wash. 2002), that struck down a ban on L&I payments to injured prisoners [PLN, May `03].

By lumping the new L&I laws in the same bill that changes the state's good time structure, the constitutionality of the entire legislation appears susceptible to challenge. Under the single subject rule of the Washington constitution, it is unconstitutional for the legislature or for the people by initiative to include more than one subject in a single bill. For example, Washington's 1993 law requiring those convicted of first degree assault (among other crimes) to serve a mandatory five year portion of their sentence in total confinement with no god time reduction was struck down because it was included in the same initiative that contained the state's three strikes law. See: State v. Cloud, 95 Wn.App. 606, 976 P.2d 649 (Div. I, 1999).

In addition to eliminating some post-release supervision, other cost saving measures in the new law include cuts to various crime prevention programs and relieving the DOC from the responsibility of collecting legal financial obligations from those who have completed their term of community placement. That chore will now go to the county clerks.

Readers should note that the half time portion of SB 5990 expires July 1, 2010, creating a confusing four-tier system of good time. Prisoners will either receive a 10, 15, 33 or 50% sentence reduction, depending not only on their crime of conviction, their criminal history and their risk assessment score, but also on whether their crime was committed before 1990, between July 1, 2003 and July 1, 2010, or after July 1, 2010.

Sources: Seattle Times, Everett Herald

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