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March 14, 2007 - Seattle Times (WA)

State DOC Resumes Early Felon Releases

By Jennifer Sullivan and David Postman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Less than two weeks after Gov. Christine Gregoire ordered the state Department of Corrections to stop the early release of felons who had violated the state's version of probation, the DOC has reinstated the practice.

In an internal memo e-mailed agencywide Friday, DOC Deputy Secretary Mary Leftridge Byrd said conditional releases are acceptable as long as they're not being done to avoid jail overcrowding. Gregoire said Tuesday she agrees with the policy.

Under a program that's been in effect for about five years, conditional releases are used for felons who have been arrested for violating terms of their release. Under the program, felons assigned to the community-corrections division are released before a hearing on the violation -- as long as they admit they did it.

Conditional releases can be ordered only for inmates whose new offenses are considered minor -- such as missing a meeting with their community corrections officer -- and with the agreement of the officer. And there may be a penalty, such as being required to meet more frequently with the community-corrections officer or undergo drug or alcohol treatment.

The conditional-release policy was criticized by Gregoire and Republican lawmakers after the DOC, citing overcrowding, signed off on the release of 82 offenders from two King County jails on Feb. 23 without the knowledge of community-corrections officers. The felons released included at least 21 with convictions for assault, 15 for drug crimes, nine for burglary, three for rape and one for kidnapping.

In a memo to the DOC after the Feb. 23 releases, the governor ordered the agency to stop all conditional releases. Gregoire said that when offenders are returned to prison because of a violation, "the offender must serve the full term of custody. Anything less sends the wrong message to the violator and threatens public safety."

But Gregoire said Tuesday that her concern was conditional releases done solely because of overcrowding.

"My point to them was you can't let people out simply because there's no room at the inn," she said.

Last year, the agency ordered 3,144 conditional releases. None of the offenders was released because of jail overcrowding, DOC spokesman Jeff Weathersby said.

Washington State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser said Gregoire has flip-flopped on the conditional-release issue.

"They're heading back to the same policy that appalled citizens throughout the state," Esser said.

House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said Republican lawmakers plan to send a letter to the governor today asking for more information.

Last month wasn't the first time that DOC exceeded the bed space in its contract with the King County jails. In recent months, jail staffers repeatedly asked the DOC to limit the number of state offenders.

The situation became a crisis late last month when DOC was housing 304 inmates at two King County jails -- far more than the 220 beds it rents from King County.

Since the mass release, Snohomish County has been working to reopen a correctional facility to help take more state offenders. The county will move as many as 180 of its minimum-security inmates from its downtown Everett Jail to an Arlington facility, freeing up space for DOC inmates at the jail.

The DOC rents beds in 14 facilities, including county jails, across the state to hold community-custody violators until they appear before an administrative hearings judge or they are conditionally released.

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