In Our View: Let's Try 'Swift and Certain'

When probation violations occur, quick trip to the slammer might work

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Two keys to an effective judicial system are flexibility and innovation. Many experts believe new strategies — based on solid research — can reduce recidivism among criminals. This serves the humanitarian purpose of helping people turn their lives around (that's why they call them "corrections" departments) while also serving the fiscal purpose of saving tax dollars.Dealing with probationers is a highly uncertain and costly endeavor, but flexible and innovative corrections officials in Hawaii sharply reduced recidivism among probation violators when the offenders were quickly sent to jail for short terms. A strong message was dispatched, but at the same time, many probationers were able to keep their jobs and housing because sentences were short.

Washington legislators took note of the islanders' success and overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 6204, which created the state's "swift and certain" program for sending probation violators to jail. As reported in Wednesday's Columbian, the program is too new to determine its success. But already we can send kudos to legislators for passing the legislation and to corrections officers for taking a stern, aggressive approach in implementing the system.

Previously, probation violators would try to game the system by talking their way onto a work crew or into a treatment program. Now, they clearly "understand that next time, any violation is a one- to three-day arrest," according to Vancouver Community Corrections Officer Beth Graves.

In addition to reducing recidivism, "swift and certain" sanctions could also change offenders' behavior, as explained by state Department of Corrections spokeswoman Selena Davis: "The more people can predict the consequences of their actions, the more quickly they follow the rules of their probation."

The old way of waiting for multiple violations and sending offenders to jail for longer sentences was costly and unpredictable. As local corrections supervisor Gelinda Arnell points out, "If you put (offenders) in for long periods of time, you can destabilize them" away from their home and work habits.

So let's try the quick-trip-to-the-slammer approach. Look what it produced in Hawaii. According to the Pew Center on the States, probationers involved in the program were "55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, 61 percent less likely to skip appointments with the supervisory officer and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked."

Those statistics likely helped recent legislation pass 77-21 in the House and 45-2 in the Senate. The only lawmakers from Clark County who opposed the measure are in the 17th Legislative District, Republican state Sen. Don Benton and Democratic state Rep. Tim Probst. They oppose each other in this year's race for that Senate seat.

Best-case scenario, the "swift and certain" approach will allow our state to use immediate but short jail sentences to match Hawaii's success. Worst-case scenario, flexibility and innovation will lead legislators and corrections officials to abandon the program and move on to other strategies.