Deeper cuts to state prisons dangerous

Public safety would be put at risk in this community and across the state.

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When the state Legislature convenes near Thanksgiving Day, it won't feel like a time to appreciate all we have. The focus will be on what we don't have -- as in not enough money to keep state government functioning for the next two years.

The tax-collection forecast indicates the state will be $1.4 billion short of what was predicted just a few months ago.

Gov. Chris Gregoire wants lawmakers to trim $2 billion from the budget to cover the projected loss of revenue and replenish the reserve fund. These cuts will come just months after lawmakers had to trim nearly $5 billion from the spending requests.

But these cuts will be far more difficult as they are an actual reduction in spending, not merely trimming a wish list.

And these cuts are gong to hit very close to home for Walla Walla -- specifically the Department of Corrections.

The Washington State Penitentiary, its employees and this community are going to feel the ripples of the cuts to Corrections, an agency that has been absorbing budget cut after budget cut.

Gregoire said a 10 percent cut in the Department of Corrections could force the state to close three prisons and release the inmates.

The penitentiary here won't be closed as it houses about 2,000 inmates, most of whom are very dangerous. It will be the smaller prisons on the chopping block.

Some inmates will be released and others will be transferred to others prisons, including the penitentiary. This will create overcrowding issues and safety concerns.

In addition, cuts will be made to programs that make the state's prisons run smoothly.

This community has seen what its like when prisons are run -- literally -- by the inmates, as was the case in the 1970s. It took years for the state to gain control and make the penitentiary a relatively safe place for staff and inmates.

It is critical that our prisons -- across the state -- continue to make safety the top priority.

Public safety, too, can't be ignored. It is just plain foolish to put citizens at risk by releasing early inmates who are a violent.

Over a decade ago Department of Corrections began releasing low-risk inmates as a way to cut costs. 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.

This has left the state's prison population of 17,000 more violent when compared with other states.

Making any cuts to the Department of Corrections will be felt throughout the state. A 10 percent cut seems irresponsible.

Yes, cuts have to be made to the state budget, and that could well mean education and social programs could be cut a little deeper.

However, as difficult as those cuts will be to tolerate, it is far better than the consequences of unsafe prisons and allowing dangerous inmates to go free.

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