Still no equity on prison releases

State lags on building work-release centers outside Pierce County
Pierce County is likely to remain a point of return for state prison inmates for years to come because Washington prison officials are making such slow progress on starting work-release programs in other communities.

The Legislature last year authorized the state Department of Corrections to start expanding its work-release program by finding sites for 120 additional inmates by mid-2009. That’s the first step of an agency plan to nearly double the number of inmates in work release from 670 today to 1,320 by 2016.

About 20 percent of inmates spend the final three months of their prison sentences in work release, where they’re required to find jobs and pay rent to the state as they make their transition to full release into the community.

But prison officials have not built or leased any new work-release centers and are not likely to do so over the next seven months, said DOC regional administrator Anne Fiala.

Moreover, the state now faces a $5 billion budget deficit, which means the work-release expansion plan may come to a halt. Lawmakers will be looking to cut spending, not add to it, as they write a budget for the 2009-11 budget cycle.

Meanwhile, Pierce County, which is home to three work-release centers that house as many as 125 inmates, will continue to “host” inmates who committed crimes in other counties but are sent here to get jobs and transition into the community.

Prosecuting Attorney Gerry Horne blames the state work-release program for funneling into the county more than its fair share of ex-convicts. That, in turn, makes the crime rate worse because so many offenders return to crime after their release from prison, he said.

State officials continue to avoid trying to put a work-release center in Snohomish County, despite the fact that an advisory committee said in January that Snohomish was the county most in need of such a facility.

There are no work-release centers in Snohomish County and have not been since 1982, when an inmate escaped from an Everett work-release center and killed two women and a girl. Local officials have fended off previous state efforts to site a facility in Everett or nearby communities.

Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail, who got the top job less than a year ago, admitted recently that he’s trying to avoid a fight – for the time being.

“My instructions to my staff were to see who wants this first,” Vail said of work release centers. “It’s the path of least resistance. The thought was, ‘Let’s go places that they want us, and then we’ll go to the places where they don’t want us.’”

Vail said prison officials are working with Chelan and two nearby counties to set up a work-release program there because local officials want one.

“That’s where we have started,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that’s where we’ll finish.”

He noted that the siting advisory committee finished its report only 10 months ago, so his staff has not been working long on finding new work-release sites.

Chelan County also is near the top of the list of counties most in need of such a facility, said Thurston County Prosecutor Ed Holm, who was chairman of the work-release siting advisory committee.

The Legislature instructed the Department of Corrections to spread out work-release facilities so no single county would bear more than its fair share.

Horne said the longer it takes for Snohomish County to get a work-release center, the longer Pierce County will get more than its share.

“I’m disappointed because it’s so unfair for us,” Horne said.

Horne said the county has a much better working relationship with state prison officials since Vail took over and since the Legislature passed a law that requires the department to take into account the county in which an inmate committed his or her first crime and take steps to return the inmate there.

Pierce County now is getting its fair share of inmates who are released directly from prison, Horne said.

“I’m more concerned about getting inmates through the back door, like work release and through drug treatment programs,” he said. “I’m more concerned about the sex offender who fails by not abiding by the conditions of his release up in Snohomish County, so they send him to a program here.

“We still get persons from other counties if Snohomish County doesn’t have any” work release centers, Horne said.

Vail acknowledged that Snohomish County, as the state’s third-largest employment center, deserves to have a work-release center, “but I don’t have a timetable for that.”

And given the state’s budget crisis, he’s not sure the Legislature will give him enough money to operate any more work-release centers anyway, he said.

The DOC has 16 work release centers, at sites in Yakima, King, Spokane, Whatcom, Thurston, Cowlitz, Pierce, Kitsap, Clark and Benton counties.



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