Policy targets felons who defy terms of release
Seattle Times staff reporter
A state Department of Corrections plan aimed at tightening the supervision of convicted felons who violate the terms of their prison release is being criticized as unrealistic by the union that represents community-corrections officers.
The plan, announced Monday by Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Harold Clarke in a letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire, would speed up the issuance of arrest warrants for felons who violate the state's version of parole and would stress drug treatment, anger-management classes and mental-health therapy as alternatives to incarceration for violators. The plan will be implemented immediately, according to a corrections spokesman.
Washington state's community-corrections program is comparable to parole programs in other states. Offenders released from prison and placed in community corrections are required to follow stipulations ordered by a judge or the Department of Corrections. Community-corrections officers enforce the stipulations. Offenders who violate them can face punishment varying from increased reporting and mandatory drug treatment to 60 days in jail.
Ton Johnson, president of Local 308, Washington Federation of State Employees, the union that represents the state's nearly 800 community-corrections officers, said they support alternatives to incarceration but that treatment programs aren't available across the state.
"We're relying on something when the infrastructure is not built," Johnson said. "There's no systematic approach to defining what alternative treatment programs exist across the state. If treatment is a viable alternative to confinement, we're still having to release offenders onto the street who are pending treatment."
He also criticized as potentially unsafe a new requirement calling for community-corrections officers to visit the homes of all felons under their supervision.
The policy changes announced by Clarke are in reaction to Gregoire's demands for a new plan for penalizing convicted felons who have violated the terms of their prison release.
Gregoire cited the deaths of three Seattle-area police officers last year during run-ins with DOC offenders who had been released and were under state supervision. She also scrutinized the agency after it recently ordered the release of more than 80 convicted felons from two King County jails because of overcrowding.
Under the new policies, community-corrections officers will have specific punishment guidelines for offenders who have violated the terms of their prison release. Those might include an apology letter, a book report and increased support-group meetings for low-risk offenders.
Medium-risk offenders might be told to enroll in anger-management courses and counseling. Punishment for high-risk offenders could include drug treatment, mental-health evaluations and incarceration.
The guidelines, which were distributed to DOC staff Monday, are meant to give community-corrections officers a clearer idea on when a released felon who violates the terms of his or her prison release should be incarcerated.
The changes were announced more than a week after an internal review in which the DOC determined that community-corrections officers need to "respond more timely to violations of community supervision requirements" and that supervisors need to make sure the officers "are applying policies and standards consistently and appropriately."
The other changes presented Monday include:
• Community-corrections officers will issue an arrest warrant within 72 hours of an offender failing to report for a scheduled meeting. In the past, officers had 30 days to issue a warrant.
The three offenders involved in the deaths of Seattle police Officers Joselito Barber and Beth Nowak and King County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Cox had at some point missed appointments with community-corrections officers.
• Community-corrections officers are ordered to update a felon's case file within 72 hours of either meeting with the offender or the offender coming into contact with law enforcement. In the past, officers didn't have a deadline by which files had to be updated.
• Community-corrections officers will meet with supervisors on a weekly basis to present cases and get "supervisory direction" with complicated matters. In the past, such meetings weren't required.
• Community-corrections officers will travel to wherever offenders are staying and meet with those they are living with. This must be done within 10 days of the officer being assigned the offender's case, according to the new policy. In the past, these officers — this state's version of probation officers — didn't have to make home visits.
This final recommendation is drawing sharp criticism from Johnson and other officers who claim visiting offenders at home generates potential safety issues since not all officers are required to carry a gun.
Johnson said he and other community-corrections officers also believe the specific punishment guidelines are so uniform that there is no room for discretion by individual officers. Community-corrections officers always have had latitude when determining punishment for the nearly 27,000 offenders they supervise, he said.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com
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