Editorial: Supervision, Not Prison, is Way to Cut Property Crime Rate, Gov. Jay Inslee

The Spokesman-Review

By The Spokesman-Review

Washington has the highest property crime rate in the United States.

Washington is the only state with sentencing guidelines that do not provide for supervision instead of incarceration for property crime offenders.

Once released from prison, they are free to re-offend, and many do. Of the 16,171 individuals nabbed for felony property crimes in 2013, two-thirds had prior felonies on their record.

The property crime rate in Spokane reached its highest level in 29 years that year. Police Chief Frank Straub said figures for 2014 will show significant improvement, but too many residents continue to be victims of crimes such as car-prowling and car theft.

If the state does not reconsider how it deals with its property crime problem, a prison population that increased by 1,300 between 2003 and 2013 will add another 1,000 during the next 10 years despite an overall drop in crime.

Building new prison capacity would cost an estimated $291 million over the next seven years.

A study released Wednesday suggests there is another way.

The Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, working at the request of a task force summoned by Gov. Jay Inslee, says “justice reinvestment” that substitutes supervision for incarceration will save money and reduce crime by connecting offenders with the social services or education options that might deter recidivism.

The goal is a 15 percent reduction in property crime by 2021, 13 percent less recidivism and, most importantly, the victimization of 1,000 fewer Washingtonians.

The center completed a similar study for Idaho last year, and the Legislature responded by updating the state’s parole system and providing more rehabilitation services. The reforms will be implemented this year, with the hope they might save the state $288 million over the next five years.

The changes proposed for Washington look much like what the city and county of Spokane have undertaken with a “smart justice” program that sorts offenders into special courts for drug offenders, for example, and connects them with housing and social services that might prevent or abort a pattern of criminal behavior.

When successful, the programs save individuals and preserve families while freeing up police to concentrate on the chronic offenders responsible for a disproportional number of crimes.

The reforms for Washington include a new sentencing grid with allowances for supervision and treatment. Importantly, they would not apply to the more serious crimes, such as residential burglaries or burglaries that involve an assault or use of a deadly weapon.

With the Justice Center report in hand, Inslee and the Legislature now have the more difficult task of writing a bill and budget to implement its reforms. They have much to do, but there is no reason they cannot respond with the same urgency shown in Boise.