As if school funding and mental health care didn’t generate enough concerns for next year’s Legislature, now there are dire reports about Washington’s prison system. According to the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, providing adequate prison space over the next 10 years could cost between $387 million and $481 million, which just might be the legislative equivalent of squeezing blood from a turnip.
Let’s start with what has been well-documented. In the wake of the state Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in McCleary v. Washington, lawmakers are tasked with adding roughly $3 billion in state funding for K-12 education by 2018. They spent the past two legislative sessions making a down payment on that total, but justices indicated last week that they were less than impressed with the effort thus far.
Then there is mental health care. Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled against the practice of “boarding” mental patients in non-psychiatric hospital beds. In other words, patients with mental issues no longer can be placed in regular hospital wards — often strapped in place — that don’t offer appropriate care and treatment. Last week, justices granted a 120-day stay on that ruling, allowing the state time to find alternatives rather than release patients who might be a danger to the public or to themselves. But the gist is that officials must add 145 new psychiatric beds across the state by the end of the year, and Gov. Jay Inslee already has freed up $30 million for the effort.
With those two large tasks facing the Legislature when it convenes in January, it will be understandable if the state’s prison system does not jump to the top of the priority list. And yet that system does present an issue that is likely to grow and must be addressed. The problem: As of the end of June, Washington’s Department of Corrections was housing 16,779 inmates — or 102 percent of capacity. As department secretary Bernard Warner noted, “We’ve had people sleeping on the floor in the past year,” and the department has recently been renting space in other facilities for 686 prisoners.
Part of this space crunch is a result of belt-tightening during the Great Recession; Washington closed three prisons in recent years amid budget constraints and a then-declining prison population. But whether talking about re-opening prisons or building new ones, any possible solution must consider a philosophical question: How many people do we, as a society, wish to have locked up? “I think that the state, as it tries to manage the prison population, is going to have to wrestle with whether or not building the next prison is the best way to improve public safety, or if there are some strategies out there that could be more cost-effective,” Marshall Clement, of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told Crosscut.com.
Without a doubt, the overriding goal must be public safety. Studies have shown that felons in Washington are more likely than in most states to receive jail time rather than probation-style supervision, and the consequences must remain harsh for the most serious crimes. At the same time, there is some logic behind a national push to provide more reasonable sentencing for some crimes, particularly low-level drug offenders. As Russ Hauge, Kitsap County’s prosecuting attorney, said: “We’re really proud of Washington’s sentencing system. The people in prison have earned their way there.”
It is inevitable, however, that as the population grows, so will the number of people who earn prison time. Washington must start planning now for the future of its corrections system.