Jurisdictions gain say over housing for ex-inmates

Staff writersMay 17, 2013 

Cities, towns and counties will soon have more input on where groups of released inmates can live when the state is paying their rent.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a measure into law Thursday that would prevent two or more ex-inmates who are using state-issued rental vouchers from sharing an apartment, unless they are renting housing that is on an approved list.

The state Department of Corrections (DOC) will be required to notify local jurisdictions when a property within their boundaries is added to the approved rental-voucher housing list, and allow local officials to submit a statement discussing whether the neighborhood is appropriate for inmate housing. Local officials also can request that a housing provider be removed from the list.

The DOC rental voucher program allows the state to temporarily pay $500 a month for offenders to rent housing out in the community, providing that the offenders have met all the conditions for early release. The DOC program, which the Legislature approved in 2007, can pay eligible inmates’ rent for three months.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said that Senate Bill 5105 will help local communities ensure that inmate housing is located in appropriate neighborhoods, such as those close to job centers and mass transit.

“I think the final product is really good for Puyallup, really good for Pierce County and the whole state of Washington,” Dammeier said. “It gives communities opportunities to be involved in the process.”

Dammeier’s proposal was partly inspired by a situation in Puyallup last summer. Hundreds of residents complained to the Puyallup City Council about a proposed group home that they worried could hold multiple recently released sex offenders. Citizens complained that offender housing didn’t belong in residential neighborhoods close to schools and day cares.

Puyallup officials passed an emergency measure in August 2012 temporarily preventing group homes with two or more felons from cropping up in the city’s residential neighborhoods. Mayor Rick Hansen said that city officials will have to review their ordinance in the coming weeks and decide how they want to change it.

The state’s new law will go into effect July 28.

On Thursday, Inslee also signed two other bills pushed by the Pierce County delegation:

n Senate Bill 5551 allows counties to outsource mental health evaluations of jail inmates to the private sector if state psychologists aren’t doing them fast enough.

The Legislature has set a seven-day standard for mental evaluations of criminal suspects, but as of November and December, more than 80 percent of Western Washington offenders were still waiting for a Western State Hospital evaluation when the week was up. One of the reasons appears to be turnover in WSH staff who leave for often higher-paying jobs.

The delays are stranding people in jails across the state and helping drive escalating costs at the jail in Pierce County, where officials say inmates are waiting an average of 25 days.

The new law will let counties contract with psychologists and psychiatrists at state expense, with the county paying anything over the usual cost of a state doctor. Tacoma Sen. Steve Conway sponsored the measure with bipartisan backing and it passed with just one dissenting vote.

Public-sector unions didn’t fight it, although they were leery about allowing more contracting out, saying the real solution is to pay experts more to keep them. The law signed by Inslee is a temporary one, only in effect for three years.

State officials estimate it will cost the state somewhere between $129,600 and $648,000 a year, depending on the backlogs.

• Senate Bill 5556 is a response to the killing of 16-year-old Kimberly “Kimmie” Daily, a developmentally disabled girl who disappeared in her South Hill neighborhood on Aug. 17, 2010.

Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies declined to issue an Amber Alert because they had no evidence of foul play. Her body was found a week later in a blackberry patch eight blocks from her home.

The new law, sponsored by Tacoma Democrat Jeannie Darneille, will broaden the Amber Alert system to include a person with “a developmental disability or a vulnerable adult believed to be in danger because of age, health, mental or physical disability, a combination of environmental or weather conditions, or is believed to be unable to return safely without assistance.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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