Spending plans by both chambers of the Legislature now include a proposal to release low-level inmates sooner and supervise them outside prison walls.
State lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee have pitched the strategy as a way to deter property crime, an area where Washington ranks worst in the nation. Their proposal would set a goal of reducing property crime by 15 percent over six years.
Nonpartisan researchers last year found Washington also stands out among states by giving repeat property offenders longer sentences that rarely include probation. Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila and a member of a task force that examined those findings, said the state needs to try something new.
“It cannot get any worse than being the worst,” Hudgins said.
Prosecutors have come to support trading some incarceration for supervision with treatment, saying it’s worth a try as long as lawmakers adequately pay for it.
That puts the prosecutors’ association at odds with a frequent ally, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which opposes scaling back jail and prison sentences.
“We’re convinced it will increase the property-crime rate,” said Mitch Barker, the police group’s executive director.
But Barker said the plan clearly has support in the Legislature, so police would do their best to make it work.
“We know they are going to pass the bill,” he said.
The Senate passed one version of the plan in March on a 40-9 vote, and majority Republicans there included it in their proposed budget. Majority Democrats in the House had omitted it from their budget, one of hundreds of differences between the two spending plans.
But House Democrats’ latest budget proposal released Monday incorporates the idea, as the two chambers inch toward a deal to avoid a partial shutdown of state government July 1.
The latest version of the sentencing proposal, by Hudgins, cleared a House committee Tuesday on an 18-15 vote that underscored differences that remain on the issue.
Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, said he was opposed because he wants the House to address penalties for driving while impaired as part of any sentencing overhaul. The Senate has passed a proposal making a fourth DUI offense within 10 years a felony.
Lawmakers’ strategy on property crime involves both budget savings and new expenses.
On the savings side, the proposals would cut — without eliminating — time behind bars for many property offenders.
That’s expected to reduce the immediate need for the state to find local jail space to house its prisoners. But state prisons remain nearly full, with the biggest space crunch in medium-security units, not the minimum-security units where property offenders often end up.
On the cost side, the proposals would award grants to law enforcement agencies that come up with ways to reduce property crime.
And they would mandate a year of community supervision for most repeat property criminals.
But they would also allow the Department of Corrections to knock time off a sentence for offenders who comply with the conditions of supervision. That would offset much of the need for hiring more probation officers, ensuring savings to the state over four years would outweigh costs.