Lowry proposal would slow rising prison costs

OLYMPIA - Faced with a staggering increase in the number of nonviolent and drug offenders in the state's prisons at a time when available budget dollars are increasingly squeezed by the limits of Initiative 601, Gov. Mike Lowry today proposed legislation that would allow judges greater discretion in the length of time some nonviolent offenders spend in prison.

Lowry said the change could save the state more than $9 million over the next four years without increasing the number of violent offenders that are released into the state's communities.

"The state's prison population is growing five times faster than the general population," Lowry said, "and much of that increase is in long-term sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. At an average cost of more than $24,000 a year for each of two years, it's time we looked at whether housing those offenders makes the best use of shrinking budget dollars."

Details of the governor's proposal were released today during a media briefing by state Department of Corrections Director Chase Riveland.

To make more effective use of prison space, Lowry's plan would allow judges greater discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders. The legislation would expand the use of two sentencing options the Work Ethic Camp Program and the Special Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative for nonviolent and drug offenders.

The proposal also would establish different sentencing ranges for drug dealers based on the quantity of drugs, with the result that big-time drug dealers would serve more prison time than those who deal in smaller quantities.

The governor said the spending limits of Initiative 601 mean that fewer state dollars are available to deal with increasing demands on the state budget; demands that include a growing population of people over age 85 and those of college age. Such sweeping policy changes as longer prison sentences only add to that pressure, he said.

Since 1988, growth in the state's prison population has been largely attributed to citizen initiatives and legislative decisions that have called for more and longer sentences for drug offenses, property crimes and sex offenses.

Lowry said he agrees with the need for tougher prison terms for some offenders particularly those who commit crimes against children but that realistically, some longer sentences for some nonviolent offenders may not be as critical as other pressing budget needs, and may have little, if any, effect on community safety or recidivism rates.

"Without question, we're facing some tough budget decisions," Lowry said. "Taking a closer look at how we're spending our corrections dollars and allowing judges greater discretion in sentencing nonviolent offenders is a reasonable, responsible solution."

Lowry said his proposal is consistent with the goals of the state's 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, which calls for frugal use of the state's resources, offering offenders an opportunity for self-improvement, and ensuring that the punishment is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

The state's prison population has doubled over the past eight years, growing from 6,053 inmates in FY 1988 to 12,127 inmates by the end of FY 1996 a 100 percent increase. During that same period of time, the state's general population has grown by just 19.3 percent.

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For more information, contact the Governor's Communications Office, 360-753-6790.