This year’s state budget cuts hit the state Department of Corrections — and those who worked at the Washington State Penitentiary here — particularly hard.
DOC was forced to trim $300 million from its budget, which slashed its work force by 20 percent. Some of those jobs were in Walla Walla.
The good news, at least for this community, is most of those local jobs will be restored as the penitentiary will take a significant number of inmates transferred as three prisons were closed. The old Main Institution at the prison has been shifted to minimum custody.
Washington State Penitentiary Superintendent Steve Sinclair, who visited the Union-Bulletin last week with Department of Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner and other DOC officials, said construction of two new medium-security facilities in the prison’s West Complex is on track to open in May or June next year. When completed, the prison will house all levels of custody — minimum, medium, close and intensive management. That wide range of custodies will cut down on the need to transfer inmates to other institutions when their custody status changes.
Not all changes to the DOC are at prisons. The department has changed the way it supervises those still under state control once they are released from prison.
This change should be a boon for public safety as well as saving the taxpayers money. The policy has resulted in a $30 million savings. These and other changes have made DOC a much leaner state agency.
Community Corrections, which is responsible for tracking about 16,000 released offenders, has a new program — “Swift and Certain” — that imposes immediate jail terms of one to three days for low-level violations such as a positive drug test or failure to report. In the past, those offenders would serve up to a year in jail but would wait months before beginning their sentences. The long sentences would often cost offenders their jobs and setback their rehabilitation.
The immediate jail time hits offenders hard as it disrupts their immediate plans and puts a quick stop to the bad behavior at the root of the problem. It also saves money because the state, which pays $85 a day in jail, is now funding fewer days behind bars.
To this point, the program has produced a 60 percent increase in offenders reporting and a 40 percent drop in positive drug tests.
DOC — its employees as well as its leaders — should be commended for making the best of this difficult fiscal sitaution.
However, let’s hope the worst of the cuts are over. Deeper DOC cuts could force the early release of inmates not yet ready to re-enter society.