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Crime bills focus more on treatment, less on imprisonment

By Dionne Searcey
Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA - Legislators are taking a new tack on crime this year, moving toward rehabilitating criminals and keeping them from returning to prison rather than simply throwing more of them behind bars.

Bills advancing this session call for keeping better tabs on criminals once they're released from prison and substituting treatment programs for jail time for some drug-related offenses.

Meanwhile, bills that would put more criminals behind bars - the kind of bills that enjoyed broad support in past sessions - are struggling to survive.

Money is likely the driving force behind the turnaround. Law-enforcement officials, criminal-defense advocates and legislators say they've been influenced by rising prison costs and the high price of implementing tougher laws at the local level.

After decades of increasing sentences for a host of crimes, lawmakers seem to be getting a message that traditional, get-tough methods of cracking down on crime don't always pay.

"For years and years, people have been voting both in the Legislature and in the ballot box for longer terms of confinement for crime," said Dick Van Wagenen, Gov. Gary Locke's executive policy adviser. "That provides a kind of public protection, but at the highest possible cost, and without regard for differences in individuals."

Washington's prisons cost almost $500 million to operate annually, and prison costs consume about 5 percent of the state's operating budget. Prison spending is growing twice as fast as the state budget as a whole.

The crime legislation moving this year "is a recognition that there is more to public safety than just locking up people," Van Wagenen said.

Get-tough bills that are stalled include a measure that would have imposed tougher sentences under some circumstances for manufacture of methamphetamines, and a bill that would make mail theft a state crime.

Also struggling are bills that would have increased penalties for auto theft and burglaries. About the only significant one still moving would criminalize the malicious discharge of a laser pointer.

Last year, legislators introduced more than 300 criminal-justice measures, prompting law-enforcement officials to call for a moratorium.

The call for a slow-down worked, said Mike Patrick, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs and a former GOP legislator. This year, lawmakers "are not talking about tougher laws, but better laws," he said.

Patrick said tougher laws don't always work because local governments simply don't have the resources to enforce them. He cited as an example the new drunken-driving law that lowered the blood-alcohol standard for conviction from 0.10 to 0.08 percent. Few police departments have the manpower or jail space to crack down on more drivers simply because the law is now in effect, he said.

"The Legislature can say we passed this tough law, when in fact there's no resources to deal with this at local level," Patrick said. "It gets right down to cost."

The council is supporting a bill backed by Locke that would hire community corrections officers to meet with and monitor offenders once they're released from prison. The officers, who would focus on high-risk convicts, also could recommend treatment programs and sanction offenders.

The program would cut down on court costs by helping to unclog dockets. The Department of Corrections could use administrative hearings, rather than court hearings, to impose sanctions and work out the logistics of a monitoring program.

The bill wouldn't cut short prison time, but Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, co-chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, said if the program succeeds, "We could look at that down the line."

The program also could help communities deal with repeat offenders convicted of property crimes such as car theft, said Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

"It looks like the supervision is going to be more intensive and designed to change behavior," he said. "So maybe with burglars and car thieves, maybe we don't put them in prisons for five years but have more intensive supervision in the community."

Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, R-Mercer Island, a longtime advocate of getting tough on crime, is supporting a bill that would eliminate stiff mandatory sentences for drug crimes and give judges freedom to put some offenders into treatment programs in lieu of more prison time.

"We've got to learn how to do smarter things," said Ballasiotes, co-chairwoman of the House crime committee. "The other stuff is in place. It will take a while to reverse the trend, but we're heading that way."

Some lawmakers complain this session is too soft on crime. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, acknowledges prisons are expensive, but believes drug offenders should serve sentences like anyone. "Crime is expensive any way you cut it," she said.

. . . watch for more stories coming soon  

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