WA Budget 2015-17: High Degree of Difficulty

Recession Job Recovery graphWhen writing about the budget it’s important to share good news as well as bad. First the good: (it’s short) the revenue forecast picked up a little bit. The bad is that we face one of the most difficult budget cycles of my time in the Legislature, and perhaps worse than we’ve seen in many decades.

The budget is showing strains from the slow recovery from the recession, we are seeing a slew of court cases that require us to spend significant amounts of money, and we are going to have to make significant progress in meeting our constitutional responsibility to fund public education.

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Visiting Prisons

View of the diesel tank farm. An Island prison has a lot of infrastructure.
View of the diesel tank farm. An Island prison has a lot of infrastructure.

I’ve been trying to visit everywhere we spend a billion dollars or more per biennium, and the prison system definitely makes the list. This month I got a chance to visit McNeil Island, a very creepy place. We have a treatment facility on the island for dangerous sex predators, and a former prison. We closed the prison down a few years ago because it was very expensive to operate. It was built as a federal prison sometime in the 19th century and you can tell.

I took a number of pictures of the closed prison, but left my camera in the car for the visit to the treatment facility. It’s not a prison – it’s run by DSHS, not the prison system, and it doesn’t have guard towers with guys with rifles. It does have an amazing amount of razor wire though – it looks like a cargo ship filled with the stuff had a very dramatic accident.

The pictures of the closed prison are weird, except for the one of Rep. Zack Hudgins climbing the security fence to get out.

I guess I was struck by how much infrastructure we need to run a prison on an island. It was originally built there because the water was an effective highway in the days before motor cars, not because it was more secure (it’s not). There’s a water treatment plant, an entire reservoir, three docs, a boat shop, multiple ferries, a fire department with two fire engines and two ambulances, etc. There used to be 1,700 inmates. There are now a couple of hundred.

We could save millions if we housed the treatment facility on the mainland, but the fight over where it was (not) located would be epic.  The island itself is gorgeous. There are about 44,000 acres in the middle of Puget Sound that would make a great park, except for the sex predator facility. This will require some thought.

Possible Budget Choices – Criminal Justice Costs

For the past 15 years we’ve been on a trend of increasing the number of incarcerated people. We now lead the world in the percentage of people in jail. It costs the state an average of about $30,000 per year to put someone in prison, plus all the costs of the courts and police/sheriff. Sometimes this makes a lot of sense, and sometimes it does not. The 2003 Washington State Legislature directed the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) to determine if there are changes to Washington’s sentencing structure that could reduce costs without endangering public safety. WSIPP is a non-partisan research agency that does this kind of scientific analysis of policy questions for us.

Here’s their conclusion: (full study here)

We find that some evidence-based programs can reduce crime, but others cannot. Per dollar of spending, several of the successful programs produce favorable returns in investment. Public policies incorporating these options can yield positive outcomes for Washington. We project the long-run effects of three example portfolios of  evidence-based options: a “current level” option as well as “moderate” and “aggressive” implementation portfolios.

We find that if Washington successfully implements a moderate-to-aggressive portfolio of evidence-based options, a significant level of future prison construction can be avoided, taxpayers can save about two billion dollars, and crime rates can be reduced.

This is necessarily a political activity. Competing editorial voices will weigh in. For example, John Carlson has an op-ed that ran in a variety of places decrying a bill that would “gut” the 3-strikes law. (Link here to Bellevue Reporter version.) Neal Pierce, a reasonably moderate voice, calls out for smarter thinking on community corrections as a way to save money. (Full article here.) Washington’s incarceration rate is significantly lower than the rest of the nation, but we should still look carefully at this. The Seattle Times weighs in in opposition to Carlson, but did print his op-ed. (Times Editorial here.) Full disclosure: Carlson was the prime force behind the 1993 initiative that put 3-strikes in place.

There will be a lot of noise about this, and I will get many letters on both sides of the issue. Getting to the right place, where we balance public safety with the costs of incarceration is too important to leave to pure political noise. Not wasting money is not being “soft on crime.” Letting too many people out because we’re not willing to pay the costs of the criminal justice system is equally silly. We should also make sure that when we consider the larger issues that affect the state we also consider the effects our decisions have on counties and their costs. We change the burden on them, but don’t give them the revenue options to deal with the costs we impose.

The world is a complicated place. It’s important that we not view it as just black and white. It’s not.