Murder of four police officers changes politics of early release

And that should cause the state Legislature to rethink proposals to shut down a section of the Washington State Penitentiary.

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Keeping criminals locked up is expensive. Very expensive -- estimates are between $18,000 and $31,000 a year depending on the type of custody.

But whether an inmate is in a minimum- or maximum-security facility, folks don't enjoy shelling out the cash. We would rather spend our tax dollars on education, transportation and other more productive and pleasant endeavors.

So when the economy hit the skids, state lawmakers looked for ways to save money. Cutting prison costs looked like low-hanging fruit. Releasing inmates earlier, presuming they were no longer a danger to society, was accepted as a sound idea. Who could object?

Laws were put in place that would reduce the state's prison population. And this just didn't happen in Washington state, it occurred all over the nation.

We concede we thought Washington state was going in the right direction in cutting prison time for non-violent offenders. Unfortunately, this issues is trickier than anticipated.

Two major problems have emerged. Violent criminals are being released early without proper oversight.

Corrections facilities are being targeted for closure even though the inmate population is expected to rise again within the next few years, which means those facilities will have to be reopened and new staff hired. The cost of bringing facilities back on line and training staff could exceed any short-term savings.

The problem with violent criminals being released was painfully illustrated recently when four Lakewood police officers were murdered while sitting in a coffee shop. It appears the alleged killer, Maurice Clemmons, had his 108-year sentence commuted by Arkansas' then-Gov. Mike Hukabee. And mistakes were then made in Washington state when Clemmons, who had been arrested several times in Washington state, made bail six days before allegedly gunning down the officers. He had been arrested on assault and a second-degree rape charge and was facing a life sentence under the three-strikes laws.

Huge mistakes have been made at several levels. And the justifiable outrage from citizens is going to force Washington's Legislature to revisit the changes it made to free up prison space.

That should call into question the wisdom of shutting down corrections facilities, including the main institution at penitentiary.

When more prison beds are needed, likely within the next five years, reopening that section of the prison will require very costly upgrades to comply with the regulations for new prison construction.

The horrific murders of four police officers in Lakewood has changed the political landscape. The public's views on early release of inmates has changed.

Given that, the recommendations in the expensive study are no longer valid and the Legislature must rethink its approach to reduce prison beds here and around the state.

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