Early release of inmates not magic answer to save money

Washington state's prison population is more violent than most states. Any plan for early release must put public safety first.

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Keeping criminals behind bars is expensive - most estimates are $30,000 a year or more per inmate. Yet, it's part of the price to taxpayers for keeping society safe.

But as the gap between tax revenue and projected expenses continue to grow in Washington state, support may be building in Olympia for early release of inmates.

It's an idea worth considering.

However, the Legislature must proceed with extreme caution. Letting inmates who are not ready to re-enter society out early can, in the long run, be far more expensive than keeping them behind bars. The trick is figuring out who is ready to be safely released.

And the task is trickier in Washington state than in most states.

That's because the state essentially went through this exercise a decade ago as a way to save money during a fiscal crisis. The state put money into treatment programs and reserved prison for the most dangerous criminals. The strategy has paid off as crime rates have gone down in the last decade.

But the state's prison population of 17,000 is more violent when compared with other states. And that - for good reason - has police groups and others concerned about early release.

Secretary of Corrections Eldon Vail, who was in Walla Walla last week, said selecting inmates to be released early is a challenge because of the violent nature of the state's prison population.

Still, if done wisely, cutting some sentences could be cost effective.

Sen. Adam Kline has offered a plan to save $16 million by releasing 600 to 700 inmates early and then spend half the amount saved on treatment and prevention programs. Kline's proposal calls for shortening sentences of low-risk inmates by four months, moderate-risk inmates by three months and those deemed at high-risk of committing nonviolent crimes by two months.

But let's not forget the inmates are in prison for serious crimes.

If inmates released early commit another crime it can hurt people in many ways, from physical to emotional to financially. If the state moves to release inmates early it must make certain it isn't simply creating more problems - and costs - for society.

Washington state can't become so desperate to save money it puts the public at risk. Instead of focusing on arbitrary savings such as $16 million, lawmakers and state officials must only consider releasing early inmates who are truly not likely to reoffend. And that must be based on an assessment of each individual inmate, not by some table or chart that offer probabilities based on the crime committed.

This approach might not yield nearly the savings Kline has in mind, particularly since Washington's prisons have a high percentage of violent offenders. Public safety must be the top priority even in the midst of a fiscal crisis.

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