Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro Woolley) speaks against the effort to reduce prison populations during a Senate Republicans press conference Wednesday. (TVW)

Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro Woolley) speaks against the effort to reduce prison populations during a Senate Republicans press conference Wednesday. (TVW)

GOP senators want prison closures, early release halted

They say the push to get people out of prisons will result in more crime and less public safety

OLYMPIA — A trio of Republican state senators is warning that Democrat-driven initiatives to empty prison cells and increase the number of convicted felons given early release are creating new public safety risks across the state.

In a 39-page report, they urge the state Department of Corrections to pause the closing of prisoner housing units across the state, including at Monroe Correctional Complex, and to halt the broad expansion of the Graduated Reentry Program that gives incarcerated individuals a shot at getting out before they complete their sentences.

Those efforts — one from a budget decision and the other by a new law — are accelerating an already declining prison population since the start of the pandemic that has led to the fewest people locked up in state correctional facilities in recent memory. Overall, in August, 30% of the state’s nearly 17,000 prison beds were empty, a figure which could be closer to 40% in two years if closures and expansion are fully carried out.

“This effort to create a kinder and gentler criminal justice system adds to the burden on law enforcement by putting convicted felons back on the streets sooner, and will inevitably contribute to a rising crime rate and greater misery for the populace as a whole,” Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, one of the authors, said in a statement accompanying this week’s release of the report. He is the ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

Padden teamed with GOP Sens. Keith Wagoner of Sedro-Woolley and Chris Gildon of Puyallyup on the report. A portion critiques past agency foul-ups, most notably a sentencing software glitch that allowed more than 3,200 convicted felons to get out early in error between 2002 and 2015. They also criticize agency leaders’ response to negligent medical care at Monroe Correctional Complex which contributed to deaths of three prisoners. A medical director was fired and eventually had their medical license suspended.

As part of the report, the authors recommend providing the corrections department with money to upgrade its technology to keep track of offender sentences and establish an electronic medical record-keeping system to improve the delivery of health care services.

The report’s chief focus though is what they worry will happen because of the future exodus of individuals because of an $80 million reduction in operating funds for the department and a broad expansion of the Graduated Reentry Program.

“This effort to shrink the prison system and return inmates to the streets sooner puts public safety at risk,” they wrote, noting about 31% of offenders commit new crimes within three years of release. “The longer the sentence, the longer recidivism is delayed.”

In a statement, corrections officials welcomed some recommendations but rejected calls to halt prison closures and expansion of the reentry program.

“Given our budget was reduced by $80 million in the last legislative session, we are very encouraged that these recommendations support electronic medical records, telehealth, Offender Management Network Information (OMNI) system improvements and more support for Victim Services,” it reads. “DOC (Department of Corrections) continues to focus on consolidating and closing vacant prison beds, as well as effective progressive reforms such as Graduated Reentry passed by the legislature which support a safer Washington State.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said the report is under review.

In August, on average, 3,968 of the state’s 16,994 beds were vacant. Part of the reason for so many empty beds is that local courts sentenced fewer people to prison terms during the pandemic. Plus, more than 1,000 incarcerated men and women got released under a state Supreme Court order to ease crowding to reduce prisoners’ risk of exposure to the potentially deadly coronavirus.

And a ruling by the same high court earlier this year struck down the state’s longstanding drug possession law, allowing for the release of hundreds more convicted under that now-invalidated statute.

Looking ahead, it is anticipated another 3,000 beds could open up in the next two years as the state expands eligibility for its three-year-old Graduated Reentry Program, which lets eligible prisoners serve the final months of their sentences under home detention.

Corrections officials have begun consolidating and closing living units across the state including at the Washington State Reformatory, one of five units in the Monroe Correctional Complex. The reformatory’s four living units are slated to be completely empty by the end of October.

Wagoner, whose district includes the Monroe prison, called the closure a “manufactured situation” as the Legislature approved the largest operating budget ever for the state “and we shorted corrections $80 million.”

Consolidating and closing living units creates overcrowding which fuels the drive for early releases, he said. That means people are getting out before they answer for their crimes as well as before they get adequate assistance to help them succeed outside of prison, he said.

Sen. Manka Dhingra,D-Redmond, deputy majority leader and vice-chair of the Law and Justice Committee, said the state, through new policies and programs, is working to change the culture surrounding incarceration. For example, the recidivism rate for those in graduated reentry program is around 1%, she said.

“To me, the conversation about whether the prison is full or not is the wrong conversation. We have to think differently about the people that are incarcerated,” she said. “There is a better way to keep communities safe and hold people accountable.”

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

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