TACOMA James Vlahovich, a grizzled former commercial fisherman, wants a job driving big trucks.
Vlahovich, 47, one of the thousands of Washington ex-convicts who are back out on the street, is trying to put his life back together. He's trying to stay clean and sober from a drug habit that landed him behind bars. He wants a decent job, sober friends, a safe place to live.
"You need to change your whole lifestyle. You need to learn a new way of living," he said.
On a dark, rainy morning, he's sitting around a table with other ex-convicts working on his resume, exchanging job leads and learning about new work habits. On other days, he meets with a probation officer, goes for intensive outpatient drug treatment or chases job leads from a branch office of the state's WorkSource agency.
There are hundreds of men like Vlahovich revolving through the Community Justice Center on a gritty back street of Tacoma. And plenty of them go back to jail or prison.
On Saturday, the state Senate approved a sweeping set of prison reforms developed by a task force led by Sens. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, and Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma. The measure, which headed to the House, would require each inmate to have a "re-entry" plan, including education and job training. It also would link the ex-convicts with community services and would impose stiffer penalties for repeat violations of probation.
Lawmakers are expected to pass Gregoire's request for a $25 million "offender re-entry initiative" developed by the Department of Corrections.
"Reoffending felons are a drain on taxpayer money and a threat to public safety," Carrell said. The choice, he said, is "building prisons or building lives."
The program would begin the day new inmates arrive at prison, with a thorough assessment of the convicts' problems with drugs and alcohol, mental and physical problems, lack of education, job skills and more.
Services now available only to some would be extended to more prisoners. An entire prison at Airway Heights would be transformed into a "therapeutic community."
Sentences could be reduced by half for inmates who complete their programs and commit to following up.
Clarke said most inmates have problems with drugs, but only half ever get treatment in prison. Only 18 percent have a high school diploma, many have only spotty work experience, many have mental problems, and there is a 500-man waiting list for a 14-month sex offender treatment program at Monroe.
Left unmet, those problems make it really tough to make it on the outside, and the crime spiral continues, Clark said.
"To me, doing the jail time is the easy part," Vlahovich said. "Changing your life once you get out, that's the most difficult thing."
Four out of 10 ex-cons reoffend. In three recent high-profile cases, ex-cons are accused in the deaths of Seattle-area police officers.
About 1,700 ex-cons violate the terms of their release each month, so many that the state doesn't have room to lock them all up. The state Department of Corrections recently set off a firestorm by releasing 90 probation violators from King and Snohomish county jails, a practice that turned out to be long-standing policy.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was horrified and, clearly resentful of those who portrayed her as coddling criminals, ended the practice. She said the crowding and problems with ex-cons underscores the need for broader reforms.
Republican lawmakers, who have been the strongest voices for reform, suggested shipping more state prison inmates out of state to open up space for parole violators. Snohomish County then offered a reprieve closer to home, agreeing to take about 180 such offenders for about $70 a day.
The jam-packed state prison system is overflowing already and has been forced to send about 1,000 inmates to private prisons in Minnesota and Arizona.
Another 1,000 inmates are being housed in county jails.
Other relief is in sight.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for major prison expansions at Coyote Ridge in Connell, Franklin County, and at Walla Walla 892 beds at Walla Walla by August and 1,792 at Coyote Ridge by 2009.
But the prison chief Harold Clarke said the system still will need two more prisons in the next decade, which would cost $500 million to build the pair and $45 million to operate.
The system has been under pressure for years, as the state population booms and lawmakers stiffen penalties. Last year's passage of longer sentences for sex crimes and drunken driving offenses, for instance, will add 1,400 new offenders to the system in the next 10 years.
In the past 20 years, the prison population has grown from 7,000 to 18,000. The current two-year prison budget is $1.4 billion and a 13 percent increase is proposed, to $1.8 billion. The average inmate costs $27,000 a year, or about $73 a day.
All of this has lawmakers, Gregoire and the Department of Corrections proposing ways to cut down on repeat crime.
"We don't get them the education they need," Gregoire said.
"We don't get them the drug and alcohol treatment they need. So after housing them, we send them back out onto the street and what would we expect?"
She answered her own question: more crime.
The DOC releases 8,500 ex-cons back into their home communities every year, typically after they've served about two-thirds of their sentences. Rapists, murderers, sex offenders, drug-pushers nearly all end up back on the streets.
About 16,000 ex-cons are on active supervision; others are just winging it.
And for all too many, it's a revolving door.
DOC records show that 37 percent of those released five years ago, 2,200, committed new crimes or violated their terms and conditions of parole. Gregoire said an updated number is probably closer to 42 percent.
A study by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy said 54 percent of the offenders commit a new felony within 13 years.
"Unfortunately, it has taken the deaths of three police officers to shine the light on this problem," Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt said at a rally on the Capitol steps. "Their deaths, though tragic, were not a rare occurrence."
Some ex-offenders don't commit another felony, but hundreds do violate the terms of their probation for example, failing to keep mandatory check-ins or drug and alcohol treatment.
The state and many counties already have a variety of programs like the ones that Vlahovich is using. But many are underfinanced and not available to many inmates who need help.
Gregoire said that Washington is still stuck in the warehousing mode.
"It's not about being soft on crime; it's about being tough on crime" by getting at the root problems, the governor said.
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