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Alternative to Prison Expansion Helps State and County Budgets

Washington State prisons have been overcrowded for several years. Rather than spending more tax dollars to expand existing facilities, the state is looking at alternative economic ways to place prisoners and reduce crowding.

In a new effort to save tax dollars, the state House and Senate have directed the State Department of Corrections to look at contracting with Washington county jails with capacity to take medium-security offenders. This alternative to the Department of Corrections’ recommendation to expand the Washington Corrections Center at Shelton in Western Washington could also be a boon to local counties experiencing declining revenues.

Yakima County, for instance, has been strapped for cash after several changes in recent years have lead to significant loss in county jail revenues. Ten years ago, the county expanded its jail in a 250-bed expansion program, which was intended to take overflow from west side jurisdictions. The county, out millions of dollars, was forced to downsize and reduce costs when those contracts were not renewed. Another decline came as the result of last year’s state Corrections Department’s decision to change the punishment system for offenders violating the conditions of their release. Instead of jailing them for 1-2 months, the new system reduced sentences to several days. This change, along with the end of another contract with King County, lead to a $10.2 million decline in jail revenue for Yakima County.

Yakima County commissioners love the idea of taking on state prisoners in the county jail, and are lobbying area lawmakers to pursue the contracting alternative. While it is too soon to estimate exactly how many inmates will be placed in Yakima County jails, it is estimated that even 100 state inmates could provide the county with $2.3 million a year, replacing yet another contract set to expire with Yakima City.

While the language in the House and Senate bill varies, the differences are expected to be resolved. In the House bill, the Corrections Department is directed to seek proposals from 10 counties across the state by August 1st for a cap of 300 prisoners at $65 day. The Senate bill caps the daily rate at $70 per day, but does not cap the number of prisoners. It also stipulates eligible inmates as those with 120 days remaining in their sentence. Prisoners with less than a year to serve, thanks to credit for time served, could also be considered eligible inmates for county jails. Though these daily rates are lower than Yakima County’s current rate of $85 per day, the new potential contract is seen as a boost to local coffers and a windfall for taxpayers.