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May 23, 2007 - Spokesman-Review (WA)

Outside View: Action On Offenders

Law To Help Ex-Inmates Reacclimate Worth Taxpayers' Money

(The following editorial appeared Thursday in the Vancouver Columbian.)

In Washington state, at least 40 percent of former prison inmates are back behind bars within five years, and some studies have concluded the percentage of ex-convicts who return to a life of crime is more than 60 percent. The state is struggling to cut down on this destructive, expensive prison recidivism and, to its credit, is launching a new assault.

The problem is not just Washington's or America's. It is global.

For example, South Africa is experimenting with a form of animal therapy in which prisoners look after abused and injured pets. The program is said to make the prisoners more sensitive and more tolerant of threatening stimuli that might motivate them to return to a life of crime.

In Italy, inmates work in vineyards in hopes they will find work in that industry once they are released.

We won't know for a few years if the new effort to reduce inmate recidivism in Washington state will be wildly successful, a flop or somewhere in between.

But the bill signed May 15 by Gov. Chris Gregoire, which had bipartisan legislative support, is worth the risk of taxpayers' money. Its backers in the Legislature are deserving of praise for the effort.

The program will emphasize in-prison education, skills training, drug treatment, societal re-entry planning and more post-release efforts to help some 8,500 released inmates per year find jobs, housing, etc.

"It makes no sense to be dumping people at the gates of our prisons with $40 and a bus ticket," Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, said.

"The present system is a death spiral."

The bill (SB 6157) will cost about $30 million in the next two years over and above other corrections expenses.

The cost of a new 2,000-bed prison, which will be needed within a few years the way things are going now, is about $250 million.

"We cannot continue to build more prisons," Gregoire said at the signing ceremony.

"We must address the causes of crime and give former offenders the skills and treatment they need to stay out of prison."

The law also will spread to all counties the responsibility for helping acclimate ex-inmates so they won't be concentrated in just a few counties such as Pierce (Tacoma) and Spokane, which have work-release and state offender-reporting centers.

The state Department of Corrections plans to announce by July 1 where its next work-release centers will be built or leased.

To be sure, there are skeptics and critics. Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "This is an experiment that distracts from the real issue of protecting citizens. If this works, that's great. If this leads to more violent felons being released earlier, I have problems with that."

But we also have problems as things now stand, including the $27,000 per year it costs taxpayers to keep someone in prison for a year , the approaching need for another state prison and the revolving door.

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