A Smarter Handle on Property Crimes

The Olympian

By The Olympian

Typically, tougher enforcement of the law to deter crime adds a burden to taxpayers, who must pay more for police officers and prison beds.

But a new state report about property crimes in Washington makes suggestions that could save taxpayers money and potentially reduce the need for new prison beds or jail beds.

The report suggests that current state policy isn’t working for property-crime offenders such as car thieves and burglars breaking into nonresidential buildings.

Clearly a new approach is needed. Washington has the highest rate of property crimes — including burglaries and car thefts — of any state in the nation. Our prisons were built to house about 17,423 inmates but are again bulging.

Without new approaches, the state may need more than 1,000 new prison beds by 2021. That would cost $193 million for construction and another $98 million for operating costs through 2021, according to state officials.

It’s not just killers and rapists serving long terms. Property offenders spend more time behind bars here than in other states, according to Juliet Fletcher of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which assisted Gov. Jay Inslee’s Justice Reinvestment Taskforce in examining the problem and recommending solutions.

The center says it has worked with 17 other states to reduce growth in corrections costs.

Any recommendations that Inslee and his legislative partners make this week to shorten the time of incarceration for about 2,000 property-crime offenders may rub some voters the wrong way. But boosting accountability for those sent back into communities is part of the equation.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle — Republican Rep. Brad Klippert of Kennewick and Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam — are developing specific legislative proposals that increase drug treatment for offenders, shorten terms, add support for policing, help crime victims and — importantly — reinstate community supervision once offenders are put back on the street.

The proposals come from the task force, which included the two lawmakers, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen of the state Supreme Court, and prosecutors. Jon Tunheim, Thurston County’s prosecuting attorney, supports the approach, although he says the state must fully commit to new funding to make it work.

Instead, the new approach plows $90 million of the avoided costs into increased policing, victim support programs and expanding supervision for offenders. This would reduce the anticipated growth in our prison population to just 100 beds by 2021, according to the report.

Unlike the rest of the country, which saw an 11 percent drop in property crimes during the recession years of 2009-13, Washington’s rate went up by 1 percent. And in a move that looks counterproductive in retrospect, Washington halted supervision of most property-crime offenders upon release about 30 years ago, according to Marshall Clement, state initiatives director for the Justice Center.

The trend away from community supervision grew again in recent years. In 2003, before cuts hit Department of Corrections budgets, there were 65,549 offenders under supervision; by 2013, that fell to 15,395, or a reduction of 77 percent, an Associated Press report said.

It’s time for change.