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February 27, 2007 - Bellingham Herald (WA)

83 Convicted Felons Freed In King County As State Exceeds Jail Limit

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SEATTLE -- Eighty-three convicted criminals, including high-risk sex offenders and violent felons, have been released from two King County jails because they exceeded the total that the state Department of Corrections was allowed to place there.

The felons had all been placed in the jails, in Seattle and Kent, because they were accused of violating the terms of their release from prison. A significant number of the offenders had been arrested because they had missed mandatory appointments with community corrections officers, said a spokeswoman for the union that represents the officers.

Other violations included failing to attend mandatory drug or mental-health treatment.

The mass release on Friday, ordered by the Department of Corrections (DOC), came after repeated complaints from King County about the DOC booking too many people into county facilities.

"We have been in discussions with them about population for a couple of months now," said Maj. William Hayes, spokesman for the King County jails. "They were basically put on notice that there needs to be a reduction."

All of the felons were freed from the jails before an administrative-hearing officer could rule on how they should be punished for violating terms of their earlier release. The DOC ordered the releases without its usual consultation with the community corrections officers who supervise the felons and know their criminal patterns and backgrounds the best, said a representative of the union that represents the officers.

The releases came as Gov. Christine Gregoire awaits a report from the DOC about why two Seattle police officers and a King County sheriff's deputy were killed last year during encounters with felons who were being sought for violating terms of their release.

DOC spokesman Gary Larson defended the Friday releases, saying the agency had exceeded the number of inmates in the release program who could be housed at the downtown Seattle jail and the Regional Justice Center Jail in Kent.

In its contract with King County, DOC pays for 220 jail beds, Hayes said. The jail system housed 304 DOC inmates last week.

Larson said DOC reviewed each felon's case before the release.

"We feel we are making responsible decisions. We didn't just say 'you, you and you are free,' " Larson said. "We had no choice but to do something about the situation in the jail. We couldn't put any more violators in there."

Among those released were Jordan Kingbird, 34, a Level III sex offender whose criminal history includes rape, drug possession, theft and four counts of failing to register as a sex offender.

Level III sex offenders are those considered to be a potential high risk to the community and a threat to re-offend if provided the opportunity. The DOC said other Level III sex offenders were also among those released, but a spokesman said he didn't have further details.

"We've had officers killed, we've had officers injured, and all of them at the hands of somebody who should have been in prison," Seattle Police Officers' Guild President Rich O'Neill said Monday. "You make a judgment call; you better be right. If one of these sex offenders gets out and re-offends, who is responsible for it?"

Nearly 25,000 former inmates across the state are under court order to be supervised by community corrections officers, a program commonly known as probation in other states. If the former inmates violate terms of their supervision they can be put in work release, told to perform community service, or ordered to take drug tests or serve up to 60 days in jail, said Mindy Merrill, chairwoman of Northwest labor-management communications for Council 28 and Local 308 of the Washington Federation of State Employees, the union that represents community corrections officers in King County.

In the past, former inmates who violated terms of their release were housed in prison until a DOC administrative-hearings officer could determine their fate. But in recent years the DOC has signed contracts with county jails to house them because of prison overcrowding, Larson said.

"This is the first time I've seen DOC do something like this," said Merrill, who is also a community corrections officer. "We put out these warrants because these people don't report Ato DOCA. These people will all be back in jail next week."

Merrill said that all of the felons released Friday afternoon were told to check in with their community corrections officer by 5 p.m. Monday. The officer could then determine what happens to them.

The DOC didn't know Monday how many people followed this order.

One officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said many of the people freed Friday were arrested during Seattle's Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras celebration Feb. 20 because they had violated terms of their DOC release and warrants had been issued. DOC officers worked closely with Seattle police that night to keep the often raucous celebration safe.

The officer said DOC staff members were told by their bosses to avoid making too many arrests because of jail overcrowding.

Merrill said DOC officers were asked to work closely with Seattle police during the Fat Tuesday celebration but felt as though their hands were tied. She said the Corrections Department encouraged officers not to make new arrests, even of people who officers thought deserved to be behind bars.

"The problem is the department will not listen to the pleas of the community corrections officers about the population who won't go to treatment or go to classes," Merrill said. "Our system isn't being taken seriously."

Larson, of the DOC, said he didn't know what staff members have been told in recent weeks about jail overcrowding.

Ton Johnson, president of Local 308, Washington Federation of State Employees, said jailing the felons is often the only option DOC officers have.

"It's an offenders' choice. Some of them don't want to change their lifestyles and participate in treatment. Confinement is the only thing that protects the community," Johnson said.

DOC has been struggling to house inmates for several years. About two years ago, it signed an agreement with Snohomish County for 225 beds. DOC often exceeds that allotment and pays an extra $67 per additional bed per day, Snohomish County Jail spokesman Jim Harms said.

In King County, the DOC pays $70 for each jail bed over its allotted 220.

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