Budget woes might mean end of corrections programs

Six Tri-City offenders convicted of drug crimes sat around a table talking about their lives.

The men and women in the Moral Recognition Therapy program reflected on what led to their arrests.

They also looked to the future and set goals so they can live drug- and crime-free lives.

"Sometimes I think it's a good thing I got my felony (last year) because I got treatment and I'm sober," said one man at the Kennewick class. "I've never been sober -- not that I can remember. This is the first year I've not been drugging and drinking. ... It's been almost 20 years since I've been clean and sober. It's kind of nice."

Programs like this run by the state Department of Corrections to help offenders once they are out of prison could be eliminated under state budget proposals to dig the state out of debt.

"This is about changing their thought-process and teaching them how to make better decisions with situations they've been in in the past," said Community Corrections Officer Tino Hernandez, who leads the therapy class twice a week.

Among the $2 billion in spending cuts proposed in Gov. Chris Gregoire's supplemental budget is a $72 million reduction to the corrections' department budget.

The majority of that cut would come from slashing how long 16,600 offenders must be on probation, according to state Office of Financial Management.

Community supervision -- which used to be called parole -- will be reduced to one year for all offenders except about 3,000 sex offenders who will have their supervision time decreased from three years to two.

The governor's budget also includes releasing low- to moderate-risk offenders 150 days early -- that is about 370 people a day.

Most of those released early also won't be supervised once they're back in the community because community supervision for low-risk offenders was already eliminated as part of more than $300 million in spending cuts in recent years.

Gregoire, however, has proposed a temporary half-cent sales tax increase that she hopes voters approve this spring. If approved, $41 million of the estimated $494 million raised would be earmarked for public safety -- specifically to keep from releasing offenders early and not reducing their supervision.

The Legislature began a 30-day special session last week to deal with the budget shortfall. The governor needs a majority of lawmakers to agree to send the tax measure to the ballot.

The Moral Recognition Therapy program is just one of many programs run by the state Department of Corrections to help people recently released from prison and jail.

It's also just one of many responsibilities of community corrections officers to help monitor and track offenders to help keep communities safe.

"Community corrections is kind of an invisible crime protection, in a lot of ways," said Chad Lewis, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

Ron Pedersen, field administrator for Central Washington who has worked for the state Department of Corrections for 21 years, says the mission of community corrections is offender change.

So, in addition to making sure offenders aren't breaking law and are following conditions of their release, community corrections officers also get offenders into a variety of programs, said Pedersen, who supervises the probation officers and supervisors in 11 counties, including in the Tri-Cities.

"I don't have to say why what we do matters, all I have to do is say all that we do," he said. "We work to protect victims of original crimes, but we also work to prevent new victims."

In Benton and Franklin counties, there are about 24 community corrections officers who supervise 649 offenders, he said.

How often a community corrections officer is in contact with someone they supervise depends on the offender. If the offender is following rules, there are two contacts each month out in the field and one in the office.

Some offenders, however, have daily check-in requirements or can be required to take weekly tests to make sure they're not using drugs or alcohol.

"It's so much more than what the public knows," Pedersen said, "We're actively engaged in helping them be successful."

Benton County currently has 471 offenders being monitored, and Franklin County has 178.

They are violent offenders, who are considered a high-risk to reoffend, sex offenders and mentally ill offenders, he said.

"Our fear, of course, is that they just want to make (supervision) go away," Pedersen said. "The question is, 'What happens when these people walk out of prison and there's no community corrections officers to meet them? What happens next?' "

Community corrections officers work with prisoners for up to six months before their release date to help them find a place to live, look for a job and connect to services in the community -- medical or mental health treatment, drug or alcohol programs.

The goal is to try to give them resources to help them make better choices and avoid going back to prison.

"We prevent a lot of stuff, but how do you measure what doesn't happen?" Pedersen said. "Reductions in recidivism and reductions in harm are difficult to measure."

In the Tri-Cities, community corrections officers work side-by-side with law enforcement -- they've had offices at several police departments for years to better supervise convicts -- but they have more authority than police to detain an offender or search the person's home.

"We have the authority to arrest our people and can take swift action when it comes to violations," Pedersen said. "We have the authority to impose restrictions on the offender right then."

Community corrections officers will send the offenders they are supervising back behind bars if that is what the situation requires, but they say putting the focus on programs like Moral Recognition Therapy is key to keeping offenders out of prison.

Shawn Bren, a DOC transition correctional mental health counselor in Kennewick, teaches the class for people with mental health issues -- many of whom never got properly diagnosed until they went to prison and were able to see a doctor.

In his class, offenders learn different coping skills and resources they can reach out to if needed. Sometimes it's just letting them know if they're having bad side effects from their medications, they can talk to a doctor to see if there's something else they can take, he said.

"If our program shuts down due to budget cuts, who's going to fill in the gaps? Bren asked. "Where are they going to go to seek help?"

Sometimes the simplest thing at the start of the class, such as talking about pluses and minuses in their week, can make a huge difference, he said.

"We call it the happies and the crappies," Bren said, adding that he can see the changes in people. "It's amazing. People are smiling when they leave here. It's very positive. It's one of the most rewarding things I do."

"If community corrections were to be cut, you definitely would see an increase in crime," he added. "We're like social workers."

Back in Hernandez's MRT class, Angelia Wright, a 34-year-old Kennewick mother of three is attending the course before she leaves for drug treatment as part of her sentencing for getting prescription drugs without a prescription. She went through the class workbook, How to Escape Your Prison, and told others in the group about how she hopes to be a paralegal but doesn't know if her felony conviction will now halt that dream.

"I spent $25,000 on school and now it's gone because of my crime," she said through tears, then later added. "Right now, I think, I'm happy and clean and sober."

She told the group that she thinks she is a better person because she is going to the class each week, staying away from drugs and spending time with her family.

"Before, I would just get high and I didn't care about anybody else but me," she said. "I think there's something inside me that makes me want to be a better person. ... I'm not out committing crimes."

After she gave her testimonial, she stepped outside and the other convicts discussed whether they felt she was being truthful and sincere. They all agreed she was doing a good job and when she returned, they applauded.

After class, Wright said listening to others talk about how their drug use affected their families also helps her understand what she's doing to her family. She was the only offender at a recent class to agree to talk to the Herald.

"It helps you work through those problems by coming here and sharing and opening up and telling everyone your life story," she said. "I think it's a really great program. It really helps more than people might think."