Inmates could get early releases
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From: Candyce J. Hawk 
To: Patrick Crusade 
Sent: Saturday, December 28, 2002 12:57 PM
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Pubdate: Sat, 21 Dec 2002
Source: The Olympian
Copyright: 2002 The Olympian
Author: Brad Shannon

Inmates could get early releases
Locke prison plans face little challenge

Gov. Gary Locke thinks the state can save $100 million in prison costs over the next two years by reducing the sentences of drug offenders -- in effect setting as many as 1,200 prison inmates free a few months early.

Some of the savings would be funneled back to county governments that are straining to find money for their drug court and drug treatment programs, now that federal Justice Department seed money is running out.

All of the qualifying inmates would be low-risk, nonviolent offenders, Department of Corrections Secretary Joseph Lehman and other officials said.

In one important way, the proposals aren't controversial at all: The Legislature already agreed this year to reduce certain drug offense sentences effective July 2004. Locke's plan would move that effective date to July 2003 and grant the shorter sentences for any qualifying offenders in custody at that time.

"Primarily we're talking about people serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses -- small-scale sales and possession," said Dick Van Wagenen, the governor's adviser on criminal justice issues.

Such offenders, who can now get a third of their incarceration time reduced for "good behavior," would become eligible for 50 percent reductions in time behind bars -- so a person held for a year could be released after six months instead of eight.

Other offenses could include property crimes where no violence or weapons were involved.

In another piece of the governor's savings proposal, Locke wants to end community supervision for an estimated 24,000 low-risk offenders released into the community, instead focusing resources on violent
offenders and others who pose a clearer threat to public safety, Van Wagenen and Lehman said this week. Most of those would be offenders freed from county jails.

Those with a history of violence or sex offenses would not qualify.

In a sign that Locke's proposals will not be hotly challenged, state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, who loudly protested against the drug sentence proposal in the 2002 session, said she's put it behind her and won't
attack it again. Rather, she'll monitor to see that criminal justice money saved by the law's change are spent on other criminal justice needs, she said.

The availability of drug treatment money to counties -- about $8.95 million in the 2003-05 budget cycle and $16.5 million in 2005-07 -- is seen as good news to local governments with drug-treatment programs and
drug courts.

"I'm cautiously encouraged, but I'm in a wait-and-see mode," said Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Strophy, who oversees Thurston County's drug court program. The proposal would need to clear
the Legislature next year, and then the money would need to be allocated locally through a complicated formula, Strophy said.

But there is no question in the judge's mind that the money is needed to continue what he considers a good program. The Thurston County program has seen its offenders graduate and commit fewer repeat crimes than they statistically would have been expected to, and treatment has proven cheaper than jail, Strophy said.

As part of the program, Strophy dismisses felony drug charges against offenders who are able to complete a rigorous drug treatment program, land a job and meet certain education goals.

The proposal to loosen supervision of offenders in the community may get more scrutiny.

The state uses an actuarial system to determine risk, building a profile of each offender who is released into the community, Lehman said. "We look not only at the crime of conviction we look at the prior history,"
he said.

The profiling system is scientifically tested and uses past offenses, past violence, job history and such factors as an offender's marital status, Van Wagenen said. That's because the rate of reoffending is linked to a person's ties to his community, prospects for success in the community and the existence of a support system, Van Wagenen said.

Several states around the country are taking similar steps to cut their corrections costs. This week, Kentucky released the first of 567 inmates scheduled for early release, including burglars and arsonists, and authorities in Montana, Arkansas and Texas also have granted early releases to felons.

Similar proposals to adjust sentencing rules are in the works in Oklahoma, Georgia, Utah, Idaho and Nebraska, according to news reports. Ohio and Illinois, by contrast, closed prisons to save money and Michigan repealed mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, according to reports.

Washington's proposals grew out of the need to work with limited resources, Lehman said. "Are these what you would ask for? That wasn't the question," he said. "The question was: If you had less money to
spend, what services would you purchase?"

The answer, he added, was based on four principles: incarcerating violent, high-risk offenders; setting priorities for who would be supervised in communities; using drug treatment and other programs with a track record of working; and avoiding a transfer of the inmate burdens to local governments.