Lawmakers likely to reject prisoners’ early release as money-saver

OLYMPIA — With lawmakers showing little interest in letting hundreds of prisoners out early to save money, Washington State Reformatory’s future as a medium security prison appears less in doubt.

Gov. Chris Gregoire put forth the idea of releasing inmates early, and, as those beds emptied, the state could close one unit at the reformatory and convert three others into less costly minimum security facilities. Roughly $12 million could be saved in this budget.

Lawmakers are giving her proposal a cold shoulder so far in a session that runs through early March.

“No one has said ‘I’m voting for this,’ ” Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said Friday. “I haven’t talked to anybody who is excited about the idea. I think the reformatory continues to be a medium custody facility if this doesn’t go through.”

Even Warner didn’t embrace it in a hearing of the House budget committee Wednesday on the bill that would set the process in motion.

“It makes it very difficult to support any legislation that would provide for early release of offenders,” Warner told the House Ways and Means Committee. “It’s contrary to the basic principle of truth-in-sentencing, it is unfair to victims and it erodes credibility in the system.”

John Lane, Gregoire’s adviser on criminal justice issues, said it’s too early in the session to consider the option rejected, though it’s clear lawmakers are uncomfortable with its implications for public safety.

“Everyone is concerned about the impact that cut will have, and the governor has recommended a half-cent sales tax increase to buy that cut back,” he said.

Corrections officials are looking to reduce the average daily population in prisons by 370 offenders. To accomplish that will require releasing a lot more than 370 people in order to offset the influx of new prisoners every day.

If the proposal were passed and deployed by May 1, the state could save $12.3 million through the end of the budget cycle on June 30, 2013. Some lawmakers said privately that with a $1.5 billion budget hole to fill, that’s too small a savings with too high a risk.

Correction officials estimate more than half of those released early would wind up serving less than half their sentence at the time they walk out of prison. And law enforcement leaders anticipate most of those offenders would very likely commit new crimes.

“We really don’t have any low-hanging fruit to release without causing a spike in crime,” said Don Pierce, legislative director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “We hope this bill won’t move forward, but we will continue to watch it closely.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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