Tacoma, WA -- A policy that has allowed many Washington inmates to get out of prison after serving only half of their sentences may be extended by a cash-strapped Legislature because the program saves money and doesn't increase crime.
Since mid-2003, many inmates who are sent to prison for non-violent crimes such as burglary, theft and drugs have been allowed to accrue "good time" equal to 50 percent of their sentences. Then-Gov. Gary Locke and the Legislature approved that change to the "time off for good behavior" policy that previously had been limited to no more than one-third of an inmate's sentence.
Then, as now, the governor and Legislature were facing a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, and were looking for ways to cut state spending.
A recent study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy concludes the state saves more than $10,000 for every inmate who is let out early, partly because they spend fewer days in prison and partly because they are even less likely to commit more crimes when they do get out.
Sens. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Adam Kline, D-Seattle, say they are heartened by the study's conclusion and plan to introduce a bill to extend the 50 percent good time policy. The 2003 law that increased the amount of time off for good behavior also set an expiration date of mid-2010. Some lawmakers were afraid that letting inmates out of prison might just give them more opportunities to commit more crimes. Their new bill would get rid of the expiration date, also called a sunset provision.
Hargrove is chairman of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee. Kline is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
"It's cheaper and it has a positive effect on recidivism," Kline said. That should make keeping the policy more attractive to a Legislature that is facing a projected $5 billion deficit for the 2009-11 budget cycle, he said.
"I expect there's going to be some opposition from the tough-on-crime folks," he added.
Indeed, there will be.
Tom McBride, executive secretary for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said prosecutors objected to the 2003 change because it further misleads the public about how much time offenders actually spend in prison.
"It's a truth-in-sentencing issue," McBride said. If a judge sentences someone to prison for two years, the public thinks that's what happens, he said. But in actuality, that inmate probably will serve only half of that sentence, and there's a good chance that only six months of it will be in prison and the other six months would be in a work-release center, he said.
Prosecutors will continue to oppose the longer good time policy, McBride said. If the Legislature wants to save money, they should use a more "honest" approach and just shorten prison sentences for crimes, he said. But lawmakers should be concerned about more than just saving money, he said. Part of the reason for sentences is punishment, he said.
It costs an average of $98 a day to house an inmate in a Washington prison.
Elizabeth Drake, the analyst who studied the effect of the 2003 law, said inmates who were released under the new good time provision spent an average of 63 fewer days in prison. That accounted for nearly $6,300 in cost savings per inmate. In addition, those offenders were less likely than other inmates to commit crimes when they got out. Of the 2,614 inmates who were released during the first 14 months of the new good time policy, 49 percent were convicted of another crime within three years of their release, compared to 53 percent of a comparison group of offenders.
Because they committed fewer crimes resulted in additional savings to taxpayers and victims, which boosted the overall savings to $10,743 per inmate, Drake said.
Washington has released 40,820 inmates over the past 5 1/2 years, since the larger good time policy took effect. Only 21 percent of them 8,440 were eligible to have prison sentences reduced by as much as 50 percent.
Inmates convicted of violent, sex, domestic violence or other crimes against people are not eligible for any time off greater than one-third of their sentence. In fact, the same 2003 law reduced the amount of good time that sex offenders could earn to 10 percent from 15 percent.
Dick Van Wagenen, who was Locke's criminal justice adviser in 2003, said the governor's original proposal gave more good time to non-violent offenders who committed property crimes like commercial burglary and theft. The Legislature expanded that group to include drug offenders to save even more money, he said.
The state Department of Corrections recently was on a pace to spend $30 million more than it was budgeted for 2007-09, largely because of overtime expenses. Although Gov. Chris Gregoire has ordered state agencies to find up to 20 percent in cuts, the prison system is largely exempt from that exercise because it deals with public safety.
The Legislature is likely to look at other sentencing provisions, too, since those are the main ways it can control costs.
"We're always looking at sentencing laws," Kline said.
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