Editorial: Get Smart on Property Crime to Lower Washington State’s Incarceration Rate

The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON’S prison system is jampacked. Inmates are already sleeping on the floor at some prisons, and projections suggest a “tough-on-crime” approach would only make it worse.

The state is predicted to need 1,400 new prison beds by 2024, at a cost of up to $480 million over that decade.

That trend line, however, is at odds with Washington’s crime rate, which is bending down. The state’s population ballooned by 40 percent since 1990, but the overall crime index — which includes crimes from murder to larceny — is down 10 percent. Arrests are down 18 percent. Both are down sharply since 2005.

Those conflicting trends pose a unique question for the state Legislature: Does Washington really need a new prison? Lawmakers, squeezed by financial pressure for better education and more mental-health care, should step back and reconsider alternatives to building the state’s 13th penitentiary.

A solution emerged this week in a presentation before the state’s newly formed Justice Reinvestment Task Force, a broad, bipartisan group from the three branches of government and from the criminal-justice system.

A consultant, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, analyzed 16 million state records dating back three decades. That data analysis leads to a clear conclusion: Washington could take a new “smart-on-crime” approach to property crime.

Washington has the third-highest property-crime rate in the nation, trailing only South Carolina and Arkansas, a rate out of sync with the state’s comparably low rate of violent crime.

Due to a series of policy and budget decisions dating to 2003, Washington rarely puts burglars on community supervision — the state’s version of probation — as part of their sentence. Nor does the state sentencing structure emphasize diversion for them into court-ordered treatment — ignoring the fact that thieves often steal to fund addiction. Instead, they are mostly locked up, swelling the demand for more prison beds.

In short, the presentation showed Washington relies too heavily on short, ineffective incarceration for burglars and skips lower-cost, but effective, community supervision and diversion programs.

Kitsap County Prosecutor Russell Hauge, a member of the task force, found the presentation persuasive. “We might be able to send fewer people to prison,” he said.

Resetting the state sentencing structure potentially could be revenue-neutral, ease the demand for an expensive new prison, and perhaps lower the state’s sky-high property-crime rate. Lawmakers have made such a smart policy and money-saving shift before, notably on drug offenses.

This upcoming session, the Legislature should listen to this compelling argument regarding property crime, and veer from the tough-on-crime mantra to a smart-on-crime approach. The cost of a new, half-billion dollar prison hangs in the balance.