MONROE – Law enforcement officials on Tuesday blasted a cost-cutting measure that has already released 283 inmates early and could shorten the sentences of hundreds of others.
The new state policy gives some prison inmates more time off for good behavior, allowing them to be released earlier. The change is expected to save the state $40 million over two years.
The policy is limited to felons convicted of nonviolent crimes, but local police and prosecutors fear those let out early will soon be arrested again for new crimes.
The state needs to impose more restrictions on who is eligible for early release, said King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, president of the Washington State Sheriff’s Association. On July 1, 26 prisoners received early releases from the Monroe Corrections Complex. On Tuesday, Reichert and eight other Western Washington sheriffs gathered at the prison to voice their concerns.
A similar news conference was held for Eastern Washington officials outside the Airway Heights prison near Spokane.
Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart said the state is gambling with public safety.
“There’s no support system for people who are getting out, and chances are within three years they’ll be back,” said Bart, who did not attend the event in Monroe.
The sheriffs said the state is putting the problem back in local jurisdictions, where police, prosecutors and jails are dealing with their own budget problems.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice study cited by Bart, 67 percent of convicted criminals will commit another crime within three years of their release. Fifty-one percent will go back to prison.
The sheriffs say they will monitor those who are released, then go to the Legislature to show how many have reoffended.
Of the 283 inmates released on July 1, 180 had been convicted of drug charges. That’s frustrating for local officers who investigate drug cases, “but we also understand that budgets have to be dealt with,” said Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force Sgt. David Fudge.
State Rep. Al O’Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said legislators struggling with a multimillion-dollar budget deficit had little choice.
“I understand the concern, but under the circumstances this was the best we could do. If we had the cash and the recession wasn’t here, these guys wouldn’t get out,” said O’Brien, a former Seattle police sergeant.
The state’s struggle with criminal justice costs is partly due to the Legislature’s desire to increase penalties for crimes without setting aside enough money to cover the cost of more people staying in prison longer, said Snohomish County chief criminal deputy prosecutor Mark Roe.
“We, as the public, are going to get the amount of justice we’re willing to pay for,” he said.
On average, there will be about 556 fewer people in prison during the next three years because of the change, according to the Department of Corrections.
The policy increases the prisoners’ ability to deduct good time from their prison terms of 33 percent to 50 percent of their total sentences, the agency said.
The new policy also makes it harder for sex offenders and violent criminals to be eligible for early release. For instance, those convicted of sex crimes can have their sentences reduced 10 percent for good conduct, compared with the previous 15 percent.
Still, sheriffs said the release policy fails to consider the inmate’s previous crimes, and that many often remain in the community to commit new crimes.
Katherine Schiffner is a writer for The Herald in Everett. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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