Probation Facing Radical Changes; Bill Would Make Washington First State to Follow Pioneering Model

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A bill heard this week in the Legislature would radically restructure probation, mandating much shorter jail times should an offender misstep. Predictably, the budget crisis has led state officials to adopt this tack. Yet, the state Department of Corrections insists that's not the only reason.

"We'd think it was good public policy even it there wasn't a budget crisis," says DOC spokesperson Chad Lewis.

SB 6204, requested by the DOC, would make Washington the first to launch a statewide policy modeled after a much-acclaimed program begun in Hawaii. The idea behind that program, known as HOPE, is to use swift and certain--but relatively mild--punishment as a leverage over offenders. The state is already conducting a pilot project based on that model in Seattle.

Lewis explains that under the old way of doing things, offenders who committed a probation violation would wait up to two weeks for a hearing before a DOC officer. The offender might escape jail--for instance by being ordered into a treatment program--but if jail was in the cards, the sentences ranged from 30 to 90 days.

"Often the offender would come out, and he'd have lost his job, his home, any progress he'd made under supervision." So, Lewis says, that offender "was more of a risk to public safety."

Under the HOPE model, probation violators are told immediately that they're going to jail-- "no questions asked," Lewis says--but they only spend two or three days there. Apparently, that's enough of a deterrent. The Hawaii program has proved enormously successful, and the Seattle pilot (named WISP) is showing promising results. A 6-month evaluation of WISP found that offenders in the program had committed only one new felony, whereas those in a control group had produced four.

Law enforcement groups, typically wary of easing probation regulations, may go for SB 6204 because, in their view, it beats the alternative. The governor has already told DOC that, like all state agencies, it needs to significantly trim its budget. Yet, at least in terms of probation, there is hardly any place to cut.

Due to previous bills over the past 10 years, the state has stopped probation for most everyone except those judged at high risk of re-offending. The number of offenders under supervision during that time period has plummeted from 65,000 to 16,000.

With the latest call for cuts, the state was considering trimming its probation rolls even more-- "down to the bone," says Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff for the King County Prosecutor's Office--as well as reducing the length of supervision for the hard-core offenders who still qualified. Goodhew says prosecutors were alarmed. As for SB 6204, he says it's an approach "prosecutors are interested in trying."

The bill, expected to save $27 million in the next 16 months through reduced jail costs, passed out of its second committee this week.

 
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