Special Reports

Clark County veto allows say on felons

In Pierce County, the state Department of Corrections picks the felons who go to local work-release centers. County officials don’t get a vote.

In Clark County, the state still decides, with one important difference: A panel of county leaders, including the sheriff, a deputy prosecutor and the Vancouver police chief, screens prospective work-release inmates. Panelists can veto candidates they don’t like.

It’s a power rarely invoked, said Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, but a comfort all the same – one Pierce County leaders would love to have.

“If they have an agreement like this with Clark County, we should have an agreement,” said Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne. “Since no county has played ball with the Department of Corrections like Pierce County has, we should be treated like the most-favored county.”

Horne’s wish isn’t so easy to fulfill. The local screening panel in Clark County is unique in the state, the byproduct of an intergovernment contract written 20 years ago, when the county created an in-house work-release program and rented its beds to the state.

The contract includes the veto provision, a crucial piece of leverage.

“When we set it up, that was the idea, that we would have veto power,” said Clark County Prosecutor Art Curtis, who drafted the original agreement.

Several factors influenced his thinking. Barring felons with no local ties was a big one.

“Why are we importing criminals from other jurisdictions?” Curtis said, explaining his thoughts at the time. “We’ve got enough people we’re trying to integrate into the community who have connections here.”

Without knowing it, Curtis echoed his counterpart in Pierce County. For years, Horne has railed against what he calls a crime warp: felons with no local ties, admitted to the three local work-release centers, then unleashed in the community.

A News Tribune analysis of the work-release populations at Progress House, Lincoln Park and RAP supports Horne’s complaint. The analysis examined the criminal histories of all 449 inmates admitted to the county’s three work-release centers in 2005.

Records show 100 of the inmates – more than 22 percent – had no prior convictions in Pierce County before entering work release. Already, some of those imports have been charged or convicted of new crimes here.

The imported felons are only a slice of the total number of reoffenders. So far, 76 inmates from the class of 2005 have been charged or convicted of new crimes since leaving work release. Historical recidivism rates suggest that number could triple over time.

But in Clark County, where the level of local control over the work-release population is higher, recidivism rates are lower – the lowest among the state’s work-release facilities, according to Department of Corrections data.

A 2003 state-commissioned study of work-release outcomes by the Seattle-based consulting company Lachman and Laing examined recidivism rates among state work-release inmates from 1993 through 1997. Pierce County ranked highest, with a 48 percent recidivism rate. Clark County was lowest, at 37 percent.

Could Pierce County follow Clark’s example, and set up a local screening panel?

“It’s an excellent idea, and something that we have certainly discussed here,” said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor. “Lord knows it’s worthwhile. This isn’t just some kind of law-and-order crusade for its own sake. This is about the fabric of our community – it’s everything that we have and value.”

Anne Fiala, administrator for the Department of Corrections region that includes Pierce County, said she is willing to discuss a local screening committee, and adds she’s raised the subject with one local leader.

“I wouldn’t have any problem at all entering into a conversation of a screening committee – what would they look like and what would they do,” she said. “I’ve made that offer to (Tacoma City Councilwoman) Connie Ladenburg. I have offered to have her sit in over at RAP/Lincoln, to see how they operate in relationship to screening.”

While Pastor and Horne say they’re interested in a local panel, they face several hurdles.

For one thing, the set-up in Pierce County is different. The county’s work-release centers are operated by private vendors who contract with the Department of Corrections.

A local screening panel would have no authority over those vendors, and no official leverage with the state.

“That is a big difference,” said Curtis, the Clark County prosecutor. “There’s no hole card.”

To copy Clark, Pierce County leaders would have to create a work-release facility, owned and administered by the county.

“It won’t be free,” Pastor said.

The state could present another obstacle. While Corrections Department leaders say they are sensitive to the concerns raised by Horne and others, that might not translate to a formal contract and veto power.

Fiala admits her agency sometimes chafes at the Clark County contract.

“The screening committee in Clark County tends to be much more restrictive than in many of our other locations,” she said. “The department simply would like to have more say.”

Curtis and Lucas, the Clark County sheriff, get the feeling the state doesn’t care for the veto provision.

“Every time we’ve renewed that contract, they’ve tried to get that clause out,” Lucas said.