By Tracey A. Thompson
Published in the Tacoma News Tribune
April 27, 2011

At a time when prison safety and public safety are in the forefront of everyone’s mind, our State Legislature is proposing to put both at risk by slashing $90 million in funding to the Department of Corrections. Both the House and Senate budgets propose to release prisoners early and both budgets provide for the elimination of hundreds of positions in our adult prisons. These cuts would be on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars already cut from the Department of Corrections’ budget over the past several years, including the full closure of three adult prisons.

If the House has its way, over 1,000 prisoners will be released early, without regard to their risk levels. The Senate’s version would release over 500 prisoners early and would immediately release more than 100 additional prisoners, even high violent and sex offenders, who are past their earned release date.

Our State’s public safety leaders oppose these budget cuts. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs have spoken against proposed budget measures that eliminate programs, release prisoners early and eliminate positions because they know what the result will be: more crimes committed against the public.

Washington State already has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country. Our existing sentencing guidelines reflect our community’s sense of proportionality between crimes committed and punishment imposed. While the State may save a few dollars in the short term by releasing offenders early, the costs will be immediately shifted to Washington citizens who will become the victims of even more crimes.

According to a PEW Institute study released last week, Washington’s recidivism rate, which is the rate at which released prisoners re-offend, increased by over 30% from 2004 to 2007. If we continue to cut programs, release offenders early, close prisons, and eliminate correctional officer positions, we will see rising crime rates, over-crowded prisons, little or no offender programming and inadequate staffing. That is a recipe for disaster.

Winston Churchill said, “The responsibility of government for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate. It is in fact the prime object for which governments come into existence.” Our elected officials need to remember this.