Corrections officers use new tactic to hold offenders accountable

LYNNWOOD — Patricia Hudson pressed twice, but the bell didn’t ring.

The veteran state community corrections officer then rapped on the door of the run-down Lynnwood apartment unit.

She examined the peephole and studied the closed blinds. There were no ripples.

She still wasn’t convinced.

Being skeptical comes with her beat.

Hudson scribbled a note on a business card setting a 4 p.m. deadline for the former inmate to report or face an arrest warrant. She slid the message into the door jamb.

It was one of many stops she would make that August morning.

For the next few hours, Hudson crisscrossed south Snohomish County, knocking on doors of apartments, mobile homes and houses that blended seamlessly into suburbia. She was checking on nearly a dozen offenders on probation. Most were in the system for assaults on family members or girlfriends.

“It really is the most important contact you have,” Hudson said, referring to the cold knocks.

These days, Hudson and community corrections officers across the state are using a new tactic to convince felons on supervision to meet the conditions of their release. Approved by the Legislature earlier this year, it’s called the “swift and certain” policy and the idea is to impose brief but immediate punishment of up to 72 hours in jail for violators.

State corrections leaders believe that by cranking up accountability with immediate jail time in the first months after release, offenders will be more likely to comply through the remainder of their supervision.

The jail stays amount to adult time-outs for minor violations, such as not reporting to corrections officers, failing drug tests, missing treatment or moving without permission. Harsher penalties are given for more serious behavior, such as violating no-contact orders.

And repeat violators get locked up in county jails until they comply with their conditions.

“I have seen some improvement in compliance with certain offenders on my caseload,” Hudson said. “I don’t know what the long-term impacts it will have.”

Kyle Wilhelm, 30, believes the new policy is a worthwhile tool. He’s part of Hudson’s caseload, which can vary between 20 and 45 offenders. The Lynnwood man was sentenced to a year in jail after pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the March 17, 2007, shooting of his brother.

A judge found grounds for a low sentence because his brother was drunk and had been hitting his girlfriend. Wilhelm fired a shotgun through a door and the slug killed his brother.

Kyle Wilhelm said it’s good the state is keeping a short leash on people on probation.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said.

Hudson divides offenders she monitors into three groups of roughly equal numbers. The first is naturally compliant, not wanting to make waves. The second doesn’t much like jail but needs close monitoring to meet conditions of probation. The final group doesn’t seem to care much about going to jail and is willing to take risks.

It is that second group, the ones who need the nudge to do the right thing, that Hudson believes the new law is reaching the most.

Clients who once showed up late to her Lynnwood probation office now appear early, fearing they’ll immediately be hauled back to jail if they’re tardy.

The shorter, more certain punishments also translate into less time served in county jails, which reins in costs. The average daily cost is $64 for an inmate in Snohomish County. The state Department of Corrections is investing the millions of dollars in savings statewide into alcohol and drug treatment and other programs.

“Seventy-two hours seems to get the attention of an offender,” said Karen Adams, who oversees Department of Corrections field offices in seven Northwest Washington counties. “After that, the (jail) time tends to lose its effectiveness. The offender starts to settle in” to the jail routine.

Adams didn’t always think that way. When she broke in as a corrections officer in the late 1980s, she wanted offenders to spend as much time as possible in jail for violations.

“You need to balance the amount of time with the seriousness of the violation,” she said.

Anna Aylward, assistant secretary of community corrections, said the state is using less than half the jail beds for violators compared with the same period a year ago.

“We know from research that the length of time of confinement (for minor violations) doesn’t improve compliance with the offender,” she said. “There is no connection. It doesn’t decrease recidivism whatsoever.”

John Thaler-Sanborn, executive director for the Everett-based New Life Prison Ministry, works with felons who have been released.

They tell him they like the new policy.

“They know what to expect right up front,” he said. “They know it’s swift. It’s immediate. It doesn’t linger.”

Shorter jail stints give offenders a better chance to keep their jobs and housing, improving their odds of making it on the outside, he said.

They’re also less disruptive for offenders in drug and alcohol treatment or in anger management and mental health counseling, officials said.

It’s too early to tell how effective the swift and certain policy will be, but it’s worth trying, Hudson said.

A community corrections officer for 17 years, Hudson has seen laws and policies come and go.

“Naturally we were a little skeptical, but I think we are on board now,” she said. “If this will make a change, we are willing to try it.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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