For people being released from prison, employment and housing reduce the chances of them committing another crime and ending up back behind bars, say Washington’s corrections officials.
With that in mind, state lawmakers this year have been trying to give prisoners more help paying rent and getting a job.
Several pieces of legislation aimed at reducing Washington’s rate of recidivism have found significant bipartisan backing. That includes ideas that stalled in the past over how much money should be dedicated to the programs.
“I’d like to think that (lawmakers) are becoming more sensitive to the issue of how we can do some common sense things to encourage reintegration,’ ” said state Sen. Steve O’Ban, a Republican from Tacoma who is vice chairman of the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee.
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One of the state Department of Correction’s highest legislative priorities for helping people getting out of prison is passing Senate Bill 5558. It would give many prisoners a two-year identification card upon release for $18 instead of the six-year, $54 card issued to the public.
The $54 cost for identification is too high for many, said Devon Schrum, an assistant secretary who leads the Corrections Department’s re-entry division.
Some exiting prisoners get just $40 to help restart their lives, and an ID is critical to get a job, apply for housing or even cash a check, she said.
“You can’t do much in this society without proof you are who you are,” said state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, a Democrat from Tacoma who is sponsoring the legislation.
The two-year ID at $18 is a “much more manageable amount,” Schrum said. And it comes with added benefits for the state: law enforcement gets an up-to-date photo of people leaving the prison system.
At least three other states — California, Florida and Texas — give official state IDs to inmates being released from prison, according to the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments.
The ID card bill has been around in various forms for a few years. Lawmakers approved a pilot program in 2014 to give ID cards to prisoners at the Monroe Correctional Facility.
Efforts to implement the idea on a larger scale have died in past legislative sessions in part because some lawmakers didn’t want the state to subsidize the IDs for prisoners.
Among those who balked at the state pitching in for the ID is state Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican from Spokane Valley who chairs the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee.
He said he approved of this year’s measure because prisoners, rather than the state, are paying the full cost of the ID.
The price is just reduced, because it’s valid for a shorter time.
If the bill passes, the Corrections Department would issue about 3,500 IDs a year when the program is fully operating, according to nonpartisan legislative analysis.
The bill cleared the GOP-controlled Senate on a 46-3 vote in early March and is scheduled for a vote in a House committee this week.
Another measure the Corrections Department is pushing for would create a pilot project to give temporary housing assistance to some women being released from prison.
A housing assistance program exists for men and women who leave prison, but it’s only for those under community supervision.
Schrum said the department hopes to expand the program in the future to men, but for now it wants to target women being released who would be homeless if not for state help.
“As a vulnerable population,” Schrum said, “women are greater victims of crime in general, but may also turn back to crime in order to simply survive.”
Last year, 16 out of 574 women released from prison in the state reported being homeless and not under supervision, Schrum said.
State Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, is sponsoring the measure, Senate Bill 5077, which passed the Senate unanimously in February and has been approved by a House committee.
The program would expire at the end of 2020, and the Corrections Department would report to the Legislature on how it went.
The new housing assistance would be paid for from the agency’s existing resources.
A third proposal with large bipartisan support would let some inmates participate in associate degree programs while in prison.
Many lawmakers also have backed the concept of “ban the box,” or barring employers from asking about applicants’ criminal histories, until after it’s proved they meet the basic criteria for the job.
Republicans have proposed pre-empting similar rules made by local governments, which some Democrats oppose.
Lawmakers aren’t the only ones looking to help inmates enter public life.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order last year detailing steps agencies should take to lower the state’s recidivism rate, which jumped from 27.8 percent in 2009 to 32.2 percent in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
Schrum speculated the increase was at least partly due to the Great Recession.
A statewide re-entry council was created in 2016 to study ways to reduce the recidivism rate.
The board has 15 appointed members, including Schrum and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
Some of the efforts are borne out of a wave of research in the past several years about “what are effective policies and practices to reduce recidivism and increase public safety,” said Sonja Hallum, a policy adviser on public safety for Inslee.
The most sweeping policy changes happen in the Legislature, though. Lawmakers appear on track to approve at least some bills aimed at keeping released inmates from coming back to prison.
“I think everyone is starting to take a hard look at ‘how do we do this better?’ ” Angel said.
Washington’s recidivism rate
2008: 27.9 percent
2009: 27.8 percent
2010: 28.7 percent
2011: 30.4 percent
2012: 32.2 percent
Source: Results Washington