Violent offender center in Tacoma closing, and it’s about time

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

One horrific August night in 1994, Johnny Robert Eggers took the life of Meeka Willingham, a Stadium High School cheerleader. He stabbed her 56 times.

Eggers had a long history of criminal violence in Eastern Washington and King County, but no prior record in Pierce County. So how had he come to live in Pierce County? He was released here by the Washington Department of Corrections, which had placed him at Rap Lincoln Work Release in Tacoma.

For decades, 50-bed Rap Lincoln, located just down the street from Lincoln High School, has been the only DOC work release facility in Washington specifically designed for offenders with developmental disabilities or mental illnesses.

Rap Lincoln was one of several DOC facilities in Pierce County that were magnets for offenders. Violent criminals such as Eggers would offend in other counties and be released into ours. This went on for decades.

Around 2001, my predecessor, Prosecutor Gerry Horne, identified the problem and called it “the crime warp.” In 2006, The News Tribune completed a study and found, “Pierce County is a dumping ground for the state prison system, which for years has been sending Tacoma and its neighboring communities more than their fair share of ex-convicts.” This, of course, drove up our crime rate.

In 2007, the Legislature passed and Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the “fair share” bill, which established the legal presumption that offenders be released back to the county of their first felony conviction — the “county of origin.” This bipartisan legislation addressed many of our concerns.

Rap Lincoln, however, stayed in Pierce County and continued to be the only facility in the state for disabled or particularly disturbed offenders.

Our prosecutor’s office rigorously monitors DOC to ensure compliance with the fair share law. As chair of the Pierce County Law and Justice Council, I have prioritized the issue and maintained a good working relationship with DOC. We are vigilant to avoid slipping back to the days when our county was a dumping ground.

Recently I learned from DOC that Rap Lincoln will close this summer. For all of us who care about the safety of our community, this is outstanding news. After discussions with DOC, it’s my understanding that there will be a replacement facility for Rap Lincoln, but the current plan is to place it outside Pierce County.

Fairness, history and common sense demand this. We have shouldered more than our fair share of the DOC burden for too long. Pierce County is the home of the Correctional Center for Women at Purdy, the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, Western State Hospital in Lakewood and Progress House Work Release in Tacoma.

We should not also perpetually host the only work release program in the state designed for some of the most difficult offenders.

Elected officials, leaders and citizen groups all worked together to pass the fair share law and stop the dumping. The DOC states on its website that transitional housing and programs are necessary to “serve as a bridge between life in prison and life in the community.” But not all the bridges should dump into one county.

Pierce County is booming. Crime is down, property values are up. Public safety is the foundation for economic growth and progress. Our continued success reducing crime and making communities safer depends, in part, on receiving no more than our fair share of offenders.

The fair share law was a step forward, vigilant enforcement of the law has been a series of steps forward, and the closing of Rap Lincoln is a leap forward.

Mark Lindquist is the elected Pierce County prosecutor.