Cuts to state prison system can't be made in a vacuum

This is why prison experts, not lawmakers, should lead the discussion.


Washington state's effort to save money by closing prisons or sections of prisons has been driven by politics and parochial interests rather than sound fiscal policy. As a result, it's doubtful that much money will be saved in the long run.

However, it is clear this effort is creating chaos in corrections in this and other communities.

A recent report in the Longview Daily News focused on the plan's closing of three minimum security facilities. According to a consultant's study released in October, reducing the number of prisons is estimated to save $65 million over the next four years.

Or will it?

It seems that closing one of those prisons, the Larch Mountain Correctional Facility in Yacolt near Vancouver, will create expenses for the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR trains and uses inmates at that facility to fight fires, plant trees and maintain forests. If the prison is no longer there it will have to contract out for those services.

Beyond that, the inmates were making useful contributions to society, gaining skills and learning a work ethic. These types of programs more than pay for themselves.

These things have not been fully considered as the Legislature has pondered the proposal. That's because lawmakers, fearing that their districts would be adversely impacted, have not allowed DOC officials to make the call on what prisons, if any, should be closed.

Legislators from Southwestern Washington have sent Gov. Chris Gregoire two letters objecting to Larch Mountain closing, calling it "penny wise and pound foolish."

"I believe state government needs to consolidate in order to save money," said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. "But that consolidation has to create actual savings, not just perceived savings. Or, as is possible with the Larch closing, an actual increase in overall costs."

Exactly. These decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. The savings and costs of closing facilities have to be looked at in relation to their impact on the various communities, the DOC and state government in general.

This is why prison experts, not lawmakers, should lead the discussion on DOC cuts.

As we have said before, but we believe it's worth repeating, our elected senators and representatives should set policy and let the executive branch of government, in this case the DOC, carry out that policy. After all, aren't those overseeing the day-to-day operations of our prisons in the best position to determine where the cuts should be made?

In the end, cuts might be made to the penitentiary in Walla Walla, but at least there would be some consideration of the needs throughout the corrections system and the overall costs or savings to state government.

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