State considers Larch — again — for closure

Cost-cutting may also limit supervision of freed offenders

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Larch Corrections Center is on the state’s potential closure list again, less than a year after the minimum-security prison camp near Yacolt regained its full capacity of 480 inmates.

The Department of Corrections is considering closing one of its three minimum-security prison camps — the others are near Forks and Olympia — to help meet its quota of budget cuts as the state confronts the need to cut up to $2 billion in spending through mid-2013.

Corrections officials also may ask the Legislature to reduce minimum sentences for medium- and low-risk offenders, and they are considering dramatic changes in the way ex-inmates are supervised in the community, changes Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas said could swell local jail populations.

Officials stress that no decisions have been made on specific proposed Department of Corrections budget cuts. Those will come from Gov. Chris Gregoire on Nov. 21, when she releases her proposed supplemental budget a week in advance of the monthlong special session. The Legislature will have the final say.

The state actually has a shortage of minimum-security beds and a surplus of medium-security beds. But Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said the plan under consideration would convert the Washington State Reformatory — one of five units at Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County — to a minimum-custody unit and move inmates from the closed minimum-security prison there. The medium-custody offenders currently housed at the Monroe facility would be transferred to other units across the state, Lewis said. The Monroe complex is less expensive to operate than the prison camps, and minimum-custody inmates do not need as much supervision, he said.

This plan depends on winning legislative approval for an early-release program for offenders considered at low or medium risk of committing a new crime. Their sentences would be cut by 150 days. That would reduce the male prison population by about 440 inmates, enough to warrant closing one of the work camps.

“We all know that the staff at Larch has had to deal with uncertainty for years now,” Lewis said. But there has been high turnover at the prison in the past two years, he said. Most current prison workers weren’t at Larch before the first wave of transfers that followed closure rumors in 2009.

“Ultimately it’s our responsibility to make sure we have offenders in the most cost-efficient beds at the appropriate custody level,” Lewis said. “But it’s not lost on us that this has had a devastating effect on the staff.”

The combined savings from closing one prison camp would be about $18 million for the final year of the two-year budget cycle, Lewis said.

Dwindling supervision

Gregoire’s options for cutting Corrections Department spending also call for considering major reductions in community supervision of released offenders.

The most extreme proposal would eliminate what’s left of the community supervision program statewide, for a savings of at least $87 million. The only exceptions would for offenders from other states or those who would otherwise be in prison.

No released offender would be supervised after completing a prison sentence.

Community supervision has been steadily reduced statewide over the past decade, Lewis said. “Ten years ago, we supervised about 65,000 offenders. Now it’s 17,000. The vast majority of those are high-risk offenders,” including 3,000 sex offenders.

“At a certain point you no longer have the infrastructure to effectively supervise,” especially in remote, sparsely populated areas of the state, Lewis said.

In Clark County, 1,163 ex-offenders were under supervision as of Oct. 31, said Gelinda Amell, who supervises a dozen community corrections officers. Those ex-offenders included sex offenders, the mentally ill and the deaf.

Her officers currently have caseloads averaging about 30, Amell said. The number of contacts they make with ex-inmates varies depending on their classifications. For example, high-risk violent offenders are contacted at least four times a month. Low-risk sex offenders are contacted 2.5 times a month. Very few other low-risk offenders get any supervision at all, she said.

About 54 offenders on average are incarcerated in the Clark County Jail at any one time for violating the terms of their releases or for committing new crimes.

That too would change, under another, less extreme option that the governor favors over eliminating supervision altogether.

Community supervision would continue, but its length would be shortened to 12 months maximum except for sex offenders, who would be supervised for 24 months.

Under the current system, ex-offenders accused of violating terms of their release are arrested and go to jail, where they eventually get a hearing. If found to have violated their probation, they are sentenced to serve 30, 60 or 90 days.

Under the new system, violators would be booked at once, without a hearing, for a brief jail stay of 48 to 72 hours.

Lewis said studies by several criminal justice experts show that this can be an effective sanction.

“There is no research that shows 30 or 60 or 90 days does much to change future behavior,” he said. But studies show “that the shorter, swifter sanctions do have more impact,” especially if ex-offenders are connected with services in the community soon after their release from prison.

Some ex-offenders actually welcome a lengthier jail term, Lewis said, because jail provides them with food and shelter for a while. The downside, he said, is that “if you put them in for 30 to 90 days they come out homeless, jobless, destabilized.”

This “re-engineered” community supervision program would save an estimated $27 million in the remaining 19 months of the biennium.

Effects at county level

Sheriff Garry Lucas said eliminating or reducing community supervision “would be a very serious concern to us. We’ve been attempting to assess the impacts to our office.”

Clark County would take about a $1 million revenue hit if the state sharply reduced its use of county jail beds, Lucas said. “It’s a budget-cutting measure the state may feel it’s necessary to take, but it has a direct effect on the county’s revenue.”

Reduced supervision of released inmates would affect law enforcement officers and the community as a whole, he added.

“You have folks that need to be supervised when they first get out of prison, because their tendency is to go right back” to the same life and the same friends they had before they were incarcerated, he said.

“There’s the short-term impact of more crime being committed,” Lucas said. “In the long term, our jail population rates will go back up to where they were in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” before the state adopted a risk-based system that focused the most intense supervision on the most dangerous ex-offenders. The jail population now is at about 720, but there were times when it reached 850, Lucas said.