Editorial: State Justice Task Force Carries Promise in Crime Fight

The Spokesman–Review

Crime is down, but prison attendance is up.

Washington leaders want to find out why, because the current trend costs the state a lot of money without necessarily making it safer. If no changes are made, the state will need 1,000 more beds in the next four years. Prisons already are operating at 2 percent over capacity. In the next decade, projected capital needs range from $387 million to $481 million, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.

That’s a lot of money in a state scratching for billions more to fulfill a court-ordered mandate to finance basic education.

The governor, legislative leaders and the judiciary have responded by forming the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, an effort that cuts across party affiliation and includes prosecutors and defense lawyers.

The state will tap the technical expertise of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

That coalition already has guided other states through the process of gathering comprehensive data and then applying evidence-based solutions. Last year, Idaho was the 19th state to emerge from such a review, which provided legislators the information they needed to write effective legislation.

In May, Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill that passed both legislative chambers unanimously. Idaho also is faced with the conundrum of falling crime rates and soaring prison population. And, no, it isn’t because all the bad guys have been locked up. If that were the case, tough-on-crime lawmakers and prosecutors wouldn’t have united behind reform.

Idaho holds nonviolent offenders behind bars twice as long as other states. The legislation addresses that issue and others, including strengthening parole supervision so that released felons don’t reoffend. The state hopes the changes help avert $288 million in prison spending over the next five years.

Spokane County already is engaged in a “smart justice” process intended to free up prison space by diverting nonviolent criminals into programs aimed at solving underlying issues, such as mental illness and substance abuse. The state will be looking at similar reforms.

Burglaries are of particular concern locally and statewide. Washington has the third-highest property crime rate in the country. The task force will be studying why that’s the case and what can be done about it. The state’s sentencing and parole systems also will be reviewed to see whether punishment and supervision practices can be improved.

The task force is expected to wrap up its work in time to deliver policy solutions to the 2015 Legislature. Because the process has so much buy-in up front, suggested reforms should be well-received.

We’ve gone through decades of being “tough on crime” and warehousing increasing numbers of criminals, so it’s refreshing to see a consensus that demands more effective outcomes.