Despite a prison population in Washington that is overcapacity, statistics from the FBI indicate that the state has the nation’s highest rate of property crimes such as burglary and auto theft. This incongruity points out the need to rethink the state’s strategy for preventing and dealing with crime and with criminals. In other words, after several decades of a tough-on-crime mantra, the time has come for the state to explore how it can be smart on crime.
“This tells us our incarceration-only strategy is not working and needs to change,” Gov. Jay Inslee said recently, upon the release of a report on the state’s justice and corrections system. A Justice Reinvestment Task Force, with assistance from the nonprofit Council of State Governments, examined what Washington can do to better protect and serve its citizens. The study unveiled a system that will be difficult to sustain if the solution is simply to lock up all the bad guys and to keep building prisons to hold them.
Under the current system, the state’s prison population is projected to grow 6 percent over the next decade, and expanding prison space to meet that demand would cost $291 million for construction and operations between now and 2021. As state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, a member of the task force, told the Associated Press, “Prison is an effective program to prevent crime. It’s just a very expensive effective way to prevent crime.”
And the expenses are not found only in the bill that is handed to taxpayers. Prison time is costly to the families of those incarcerated and can prove to be a lifelong sentence that impacts the criminals’ ability to reintegrate into society. While we can understand that a civilized society calls for people to be held accountable for their crimes, and while we would not diminish the role the criminal played in their incarceration, part of any corrections reform must include an examination of the state’s sentencing guidelines.
Washington is the only state with guidelines that do not provide for supervision instead of incarceration for property crime offenders, and logic dictates that the state can find a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. The task force report suggests that spending more money for policing, for assisting crime victims, and for increasing probation supervision will reduce prison expenses and, in the long run, save money.
From 2009-13, while the nation as a whole saw an 11 percent drop in property crimes, Washington saw a 1 percent increase. Clearly, something is amiss in how the state approaches crime prevention, and much of that can be traced to a lack of supervision for offenders. In 2003, Washington had 65,549 offenders under supervision; following a wave of budget cuts, that number was reduced 77 percent by 2013. Instead, Washington typically opts for short prison terms that accomplish little other than teaching the offender how to be a better criminal. Shortening incarceration time for minor property offenses but enhancing the accountability of those criminals upon their release — and remaining tough on repeat offenders — is an equation that seems to pencil out.
Obviously, the goal is to reduce crime and to reduce the number of crime victims. The question of how best to do that is a conundrum that presents a challenge for the Legislature. Lawmakers are, understandably, loath to appear soft on crime and risk incurring the wrath of voters. But the time has come for Washington to start acting smart on crime.