Lewis County public officials have expressed a deep concern about the state’s plan to release about 1,000 prison inmates in an effort to protect the prison population from a coronavirus outbreak.
The decision came after the Washington Supreme Court’s April 10 ruling on an emergency motion — spurred on by a lawsuit filed by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of inmates — which ordered Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Stephen Sinclair “to take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety” of incarcerated individuals in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a DOC press release, Sinclair will grant emergency furloughs to incarcerated individuals in minimum custody settings who meet certain criteria.
The plan focuses on releasing nonviolent offenders, drug- or alcohol-related offenses and people held on lower-level supervision violations, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
On Monday, Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer and Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza released a joint statement conveying their disapproval of the decision, citing concerns for victims and for public safety.
“We are hopeful the Governor will be very intentional as to who is released, transparency will be key,” Meyer said. “We also hope the Governor will provide victims with actual notice of intended release, as well as to the counties from ... which the crimes were prosecuted.”
Meyer said he is particularly concerned with releasing nonviolent offenders because the state defines somes crimes as nonviolent that he would consider to be violent.
He pointed to the 2019 Washington State Adult Sentencing Guidelines Manual which lists crimes like vehicular homicide, third-degree rape, third-degree rape of a child and third-degree assault as nonviolent crimes.
Meyer is also uneasy about how victims will be notified about the release of incarcerated individuals. He said crimes that one might assume would be considered a “crime against persons” — like hit and run causing a death — are not considered a crime against persons under the law, and therefore, the family of the victim would not be notified of the offender’s release.
“It concerns me that the system that went through the process of sentencing the defendant is now being excluded and they’re being let out with a swipe of a pen,” Meyer said. “And if there are victims involved, I don’t care if (Inslee) calls my office and says ‘hey, can you contact these victims?’ Absolutely. Victims have the right to have certainty,” he added.
State lawmakers had similar concerns. State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, characterized the plan as “not an ideal situation.”
“I think we are all unsure,” if this level of action was necessary to meet the Supreme Court’s request, Blake, who represents the 19th legislative district, said. “In the totality of everything we are facing, this is a very high concern. Are these folks going to have the oversight that is going to keep them from reoffending and reentering the system?”
Blake said he would like to know what the plan is for early-released offenders once they are out, for example, will the state track where they go?
“I’m sure people are working on that right now, but right now I don’t have a perfect grasp on how that will be implemented,” Blake said.
State Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, also of the 19th Legislative District said he isn’t keen on the idea of releasing incarcerated individuals early, but considering the circumstances, he said the plan laid out by the DOC and Inslee is as good as it will get.
“It’s a little frustrating that we have to do this, for me,” Takko said. “The system should work, but a lot of systems aren’t working right now.”
Takko also considered the legal battles that he thinks of as inevitable that would occur if prisoners are not released, one of which is already underway.
The way Takko sees it, more lawsuits will come, and perhaps the state will save time and resources in legal battles if they release the inmates who match the criteria that has been outlined.
“If you look at it just in the dollars and cents and, I don’t know, fiduciary responsibility, maybe the state is trying to get ahead of the thing so it’s not as bad as it could be,” Takko said. “Now I may be exaggerating a bit, but say if we had 100 (inmates) 70 years of age and older that got (COVID-19) and then half of them ended up dying, you don’t think there would be some kind of lawsuit?”
Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, of the 20th Legislative District and Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes were of a similar mind as Meyer.
DeBolt felt that providing testing to prisons and strict quarantining measures would have sufficed and that the release of prisoners was unnecessary.
“We’re doing so many things that will be hard to unwind, so I am concerned about it,” DeBolt said.
Dawes said he agreed with the statements from Meyer and Snaza.
“I think they covered my concerns well. I find it difficult to believe once released, they will follow the stay at home directives as outlined by the Governor’s office,” Dawes wrote in an email.