Must Tacoma have the only home for disturbed felons?

The News TribuneFebruary 18, 2014 

The Rap House-Lincoln Park Work Release Center is the only work-release site in the state that offers in-house psychiatric services for felons. It is located near Lincoln High School.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRETIONS

Lincoln High School is distinguished for its innovative and successful teaching. It also has a less savory distinction: the only school in Washington close by a state home for mentally ill sex offenders.

Hold the pitchforks. The Rap House and Lincoln Park Work Release Center – two adjacent houses – have an important role. As work-release centers, they serve as a bridge between prison and the streets. Their residents are required to seek jobs and otherwise prepare themselves for life on the outside.

The problem is uniqueness: Rap House-Lincoln Park is Washington’s sole work-release site that offers in-house psychiatric services, which makes it the chief work-release destination for seriously disturbed or developmentally disabled felons.

Sometimes – not often, the state says – that includes criminals who once committed serious sex offenses against minors. Pierce County lawmakers and Prosecutor Mark Lindquist have been pressing the Legislature to require that these particular criminals be housed in places farther from youth and children.

Their measure, Senate Bill 6252, might not deflect many offenders; the state Department of Corrections maintains that few former youth-predators with psychiatric illnesses actually pass through Rap House and Lincoln Park. Still, that number should be zero. The bill should be enacted.

Its passage would at least be a baby step toward a bigger goal – sharing more mentally ill offenders with other counties. The fact that Tacoma hosts Washington’s only work-release center with in-house psychiatric services touches a very raw nerve.

For decades, the Department of Corrections had used Pierce County as a dumping ground for state inmates, quietly building an infrastructure of work release and halfway houses. No one raised much of a stink for many years, so the area became the path of least resistance for the department’s “graduates.” Because released convicts usually re-offend, Tacoma and Pierce County were saddled with high rates of violent crime.

The Department of Corrections is no longer the enemy. In recent years, with prodding from area lawmakers and new legislation, it has sought to send released inmates back to the counties they came from. That is deeply appreciated.

But anyone who follows the news will note that Pierce County already has its share of criminals with severe, poorly controlled mental illnesses. Some of them are the legacy of past state dumping. Treatment is far too scarce even for the vast majority of psychiatric patients who don’t have violent tendencies.

Our communities don’t need more felons who wind up here chiefly because Tacoma is the only place the state that provides meds and therapy in work release. SB 6252 serves notice that we’re paying attention.

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