by David M. Reutter
Overcrowding is pinching the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC). To alleviate that problem, the department ordered less than 100 community supervision violators released without a hearing -- but the resulting public outcry has the WDOC looking for additional beds, which will result in more prisoners being sent to out-of-state, for profit facilities.
To ease its burgeoning overcrowding problem, the WDOC has transferred over 1,000 prisoners out-of-state since 2003. The state is in the process of adding 2,900 prison beds by 2009; it is projected that an additional 4,455 beds will be needed.
The state's community supervision program, known as parole in other states, is causing the WDOC the greatest amount of criticism and directly impacts the need for more prison bed space. In 2006, more than 28,000 people were under active supervision by the WDOC. On average, 1,200 of those prisoners were returned to jail or prison for breaking their release rules. That number is expected to rise to 1,600 over the next two years. Some offenders are violated for committing new crimes; most, however, have technical violations such as failing to attend required meetings or flunking a drug test.
The lack of prison bed space has sparked a debate as to how such violators should be handled. "We're reaching critical mass everywhere," said Lori Ramsdell-Gilkey, WDOC's hearing administrator. "What we did [on February 23, 2007] will only help us for a few days. We have got to learn how to deal with this violator population without using confinement as our only option." What happened on February 23 was that 83 violators were ordered released by the WDOC without hearings in order to alleviate overcrowding at two King County jails.
Several proposals are on the table to deal with community supervision violators. Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed a $25 million Offender Re-Entry Initiative. Rather than continuing the current policy of sending violators to jail for 30 to 60 days, the Governor's plan would allow community corrections officers to refer violators to drug treatment, and make them report more often and take more drug tests, among other lesser sanctions. Senate Bill 5070 is a version of that proposed program -- it would allow those on supervision to break the rules four or more times before being returned to prison.
Opposing legislation, House Bill 2377, would make violators serve the remainder of their time on community supervision in prison if they break the rules just once. "We've seen people who are totally abusing the system," said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt. "They are on a contract with the state that says if you break the rules, you go back to prison. It's cost police officers their lives and we have to get tougher on this. We have to live up to our end of the bargain."
In fact, three police officers were killed in a five-month period by offenders on community supervision, which has stoked the fires of this debate. On August 13, 2006, just 10 days after Mary Jane Rivas was released from prison, her speeding vehicle slammed into a cruiser driven by Seattle police officer Joselito Barber. Another Seattle police officer, Mary Nowak, was killed when a vehicle driven by Neal Kelley collided with hers. Then, on December 2, 2006, King County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Cox was shot in the head twice by Raymond Porter, who then shot and killed himself.
Those incidents, each involving an offender on community supervision, placed the program under close scrutiny. While Gov. Gregoire has been critical of the WDOC in light of these incidents, she was well aware in 2003, when she was Washington's attorney general, of the department's policy to downgrade felons rated highly likely to reoffend -- which previously required strict supervision -- to low-risk status with minimal or no supervision.
This is in the context that since 1992 the state of Washington has paid over $100 million in verdicts and settlements to citizens raped and killed by parolees based on negligent parole supervision by the Department of Corrections. The Washington DOC has a $25 million insurance deductible as a result of its dramatic failure to properly treat and supervise its parolee population.
The WDOC downgraded 1,298 people from high-oversight to low-risk supervision in 2006. Between 2002 and 2006, 122 supervisees committed new violent crimes after being downgraded. Gov. Gregoire admits that such a system propagates the recycling of prisoners to the streets and then back to prison.
"We don't get them the drug and alcohol treatment they need," she said. "We just house them. We send them back out on the street. We need to make sure these people get a decent education and a decent job -- to turn their lives around."
This is one reason for giving supervising officers the latitude to decide who goes to jail. "I don't expect angels coming out of prison. Their lives don't all go in one direction. There's occasional backsliding. But if it's three steps forward, one step back, and three steps forward, I want to give them a chance," stated Senator Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood.
"But if somebody violates the condition of their release and does so repeatedly, then they're going to be sent back to prison for a minimum of 60 days or for the rest of their sentences."
Current policy allows minimum supervision after an offender completes 70 percent of community supervision time without incident. A violation results in a return to jail. To accommodate the violators, the WDOC rents approximately 800 cells throughout the state; in February 2007, King County's jail beds were overflowing with violators. On February 23, the WDOC ordered 83 of those violators released.
The WDOC's contract with King County provides 220 jail beds; however, the violator population had reached 304 prisoners. "We have been in discussions with them about population for a couple of months now," said Major William Hayes, King County jail spokesman. "They were basically put on notice that there needs to be a reduction."
A review of prisoner files was made to identify lower-risk prisoners who were suitable for release. "We feel we are making responsible decisions. We didn't just say you, you, and you are free," said WDOC spokesman Gary Larson. "We had no choice but to do something about the situation in the jail. We couldn't put any more violators in there."
The released offenders did not undergo the normal administrative hearing process. An even larger outcry occurred when it was revealed that the violators' community supervision officer was not consulted before they were released.
In a letter to WDOC Secretary Harold Clark, Gov. Gregoire wrote, "I am outraged by the recent release of offenders in King County back into the community prior to the completion of their custody sanction." Yet she wasn't outraged at the implementation of policies that resulted in overcrowding, which in turn necessitated such releases. Nonetheless, the Governor prohibited any further similar releases.
As all this transpired, problems were revealed at the live-in Reynolds Work Release center, which is run by Pioneer Human Services under contract with the WDOC. A January 2007 raid netted a small amount of cocaine, $3,600 in cash and several cell phones. Allegations of misconduct included inappropriate sexual relationships between staff and prisoners. One prisoner's cellphone had the personal phone numbers for Pioneer staff on it. Six Pioneer employees resigned or were fired, and five offenders under community supervision were sent back to prison.
With trouble in their own overflowing prison system, WDOC officials looked to an old solution: Shipping prisoners to other states to do time.
As of August 31, 2007, over 1,000 WDOC prisoners were serving their sentences in for-profit, privately-operated facilities in Minnesota and Arizona run by Corrections Corporation of America. It was reported in October 2007 that WDOC was sending an additional 240 prisoners to an out-of-state lockup in Oklahoma. Most of the transferred prisoners are well-behaved and have non-violent records, which, as one article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer put it, is "an odd way to reward good behavior." The WDOC also tries to transfer prisoners with at least five years left on their sentences.
Ironically, in June 2006, WDOC Secretary Harold Clarke stated that he was creating programs to encourage stronger bonds between prisoners and their family members. "Strong family ties are good for children and help reduce the risk that offenders will commit new crimes," he said at the time. But strengthening family bonds is hard to do when prisoners are transferred hundreds of miles from their home state.
Legislators, however, seem to like the solution. "With $2 billion in [budget] surplus, there?s no reason why we can't make this happen," said Sen. Carrell. "This fix is good for county jail capacity and good for prison capacity, and I think the people of Washington will be safer because of it."
While politicians love to bang the "lock 'em up" drum, they are reluctant to pay for the prison cells to make that happen. Perhaps they should beat the drum that Gov. Gregoire proposed -- education and treatment. That drum, however, is not as popular and garners fewer headlines for media-savvy politicians. Which still leaves them with a problem.
Washington's continually growing prison population is a direct result of some of the nation?s harshest sentencing measures. Each year the legislature lengthens sentences, reduces good time and further ensures a growing prison population. In 1987 Washington had about 5,400 prisoners.
Twenty years later it has almost 19,000. Like most states, sentencing reform is nowhere on the political agenda.
"As a society we're going to have to make some decisions we don't want to make," said Denise Hollenbeck, a WDOC risk assessment officer. "You're left with these impossible choices." Not impossible for the WDOC prisoners who have been sent to for-profit prisons in other states, far from their loved ones. For them, the reality of their situation is all too possible.
Sources: Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The News Tribune
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