State hopes to slow prisons' revolving door
Seattle Times staff reporter
Hoping to reduce the number of prison parolees who reoffend, Gov. Christine Gregoire on Tuesday signed a law that will create a watchdog group to oversee the state's troubled community-corrections system.
A task force of 15 people, including the state's top politicians, police and criminal-justice advocates, will meet by August to review how community corrections — this state's version of parole — is handled. Their findings will be reported to Gregoire by November.
The committee is one component of sweeping changes that will cost about $30 million over the next two years.
The new law delves into nearly every aspect of how convicts are monitored by the state, starting from the minute they walk into prison to their life after release.
Starting in July, all inmates will have a community re-entry plan created when they reach prison. While in prison, inmates will be required to take classes and obtain vocational training.
Once released, offenders will be required to hold a job, find housing, enroll in drug and alcohol treatment and obtain their driver's license, said state Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, who sponsored the legislation Gregoire signed.
Inmates who return to prison and haven't abided by their re-entry plan will lose their chance at "good time" or early release.
"What it's going to do is require felons to earn their way out of prison," Carrell said.
The changes come in response to community outrage over February's mass release from King County jails of felons who had violated terms of their release from prison. The felons were released to ease jail overcrowding before an administrative judge could review their cases.
The Department of Corrections community-corrections program has come under scrutiny after the deaths of three law-enforcement officers last year in incidents involving felons in the program.
The department releases 8,500 inmates every year, typically after they've served about two-thirds of their sentences. Officials say four out of 10 ex-convicts commit new crimes within five years.
Gary Larson, a department spokesman, said that under the new legislation, inmates will be assessed more intensely once they reach prison.
"It is different in that we are going to be doing more of that than in the past," Larson said. "This makes it clear the department has an obligation to do those assessments when an offender arrives in the prison system."
But Ton Johnson, president of Local 308, Washington Federation of State Employees, the union that represents the state's nearly 800 community-corrections officers, says re-entry plans are nothing new.
"I'm having a really difficult time figuring out what the difference is," Johnson said. "My hope is that this is a work in process and not the final product."
Under the new legislation, the state will pay for four counties to create Community Transition Coordination Network centers that will assess local offender needs.
Employees at the facilities will work closely with community-corrections officers in making sure inmates are getting access to work, school, health care and housing, Carrell said. The counties have yet to be determined, he said.
Johnson said it's impossible for community-corrections officers to devote such detail to each offender because their caseloads are so large. Some officers, he said, are supervising more than 50 inmates.
Larson, the Corrections Department spokesman, said officials hope to have all of the package implemented by July.
"We cannot continue to build more prisons," Gregoire said. "We must address the causes of crime and give former offenders the skills and treatment they need to stay out of prison."
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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