Long-term prison planning needed for state

Lawmakers, looking out for their own political interests, have not been letting prison experts guide the process.

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When money is tight, prudent financial planning is essential. It means attempting to look beyond today to make smart long-term decisions that are cost effective.

Unfortunately, when it comes to managing costs associated with running the state's prison system, the Legislature has been extremely shortsighted recently. Lawmakers have allowed politics and parochial interests to shape the future for the Department of Corrections.

In the midst of the current financial crisis, state officials looked to the DOC for some short-term savings. Projections showed a slight decline in the statewide inmate population for the next five years, so officials figured that reducing the number of prison beds -- and staff to watch those inmates -- would be a good way to save $12 million over the next two years.

But lawmakers didn't leave the decision on where and how to cut to prison experts. They are micromanaging the process using politics as their guide.

This put the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in the crosshairs for cuts. In our view, and the view of many who understand corrections, it is foolish to close the penitentiary's old main institution, which now houses medium security inmates. If -- make that when -- the state prison population rises that section of the prison could not be reopened without very expensive renovation.

Other options being tossed out for the short-term savings have also been undercut by politics. Within the last week, for example, legislators from the Tacoma area stepped in to block plans to close McNeil Island Corrections Center. However, we can hardly blame them given how McNeil Island got on the cut list.

The prison, on an island southwest of Tacoma, wasn't on the chopping block until late last Friday, when the Senate Ways and Means Committee traded it for a Vancouver, Wash.-area prison that had been eyed for closure. When the Senate budget passed Saturday, the McNeil Island prison was facing closure and Larch Corrections Center was spared, The Seattle Times reported.

Round and round and round we go. Is this any way to manage a prison system?

Absolutely not, particularly when legislators are apparently looking at building at least one new prison within the next decade.

The Times, citing a Senate budget analyst as a source, said the Senate's capital budget will propose building a new prison along the Interstate 5 corridor by 2016 to compensate for forecast inmate-population growth.

Yet, spokespeople for Gov. Chris Gregoire's office and the DOC said they hadn't heard of discussions to build a new prison in that area.

On the positive side, progress has been made on legislative approval for funding the design of a new medium security facility at the penitentiary here. This would would allow a smooth transition if the main institution were to be closed. This type of long-term planning makes sense.

Lawmakers need to listen to prison and law enforcement experts before prisons are shut down, not after.

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