Rep. Jenny Graham: Releasing criminals early will make our families and communities less safe

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At every level of society, we are getting used to a new normal.  The social distancing, closure of schools and businesses, vacant strip malls and sparse street traffic have an odd sense of normalcy to them that was absent a month ago.

Unfortunately, unless common sense prevails, the new normal could include more criminals on our streets.

The state Department of Corrections (DOC) is in the process of releasing over a thousand inmates from state prison early because of the coronavirus.  Yet there have been no deaths and only 13 confirmed cases in the entire state corrections system, nearly all of which are at one facility in Monroe.

We've been here before, folks.  The swine flu – H1N1 – comes to mind, and we didn't release criminals early.  Why the rush now?  There is no emergent need within our corrections system that justifies releasing inmates before finishing their sentences.

To make matters worse, because of the rushed nature of this effort, DOC says they will not alert the criminals' victims and their families.  This is unconscionable.  Victims and their families have a right to know when the individual convicted of a crime against them is once again out on the street in a position to commit further offenses.

In addition, there is no specific plan for housing those released early.  Yes, some may live with family or friends, but here locally, some estimates show the City of Spokane spends thousands of dollars per month on each homeless person.  Will the state's actions add to the homeless problems we face here locally?  Is that a compassionate solution?

The state Supreme Court has said the state needs to take action to protect inmates.  But there are many other options the state could consider before releasing over a thousand inmates early.  Temporary tent structures or RVs, perhaps.  Currently, there is no directive from the courts mandating early release.

So why now?  I fear the COVID-19 pandemic is being used by those who want to alter the balance of the scales of justice.  What's the adage?  Never let a crisis go to waste?

Let's look at the crimes for those on the list to be released: drug offenses, drug dealing, firearms crimes, robberies, and even sex crimes.  We also must remember that in most cases, these crimes are plea bargained down from even more serious crimes.  In Florida, a man released from prison because of coronavirus concerns allegedly committed murder the next day.  Is this what we want for our communities?

The fact is, there is no compelling reason to jeopardize the safety of our families and communities by releasing over a thousand prison inmates early.  Crime is already on the rise in our area with residential and garage burglaries up 30% and commercial burglary up 50%.  The law-abiding, hardworking citizens of this state have enough to worry about right now without adding more criminals to our streets.

We need compassionate solutions for our entire community.  With just 13 confirmed cases out of 16,000 inmates, one could argue the safest thing we could do for our prison population is to keep them in prison where the coronavirus is nearly nonexistent.

Putting convicted criminals back on the streets makes our families and communities less safe, adds to our homeless epidemic, and will likely increase their exposure to the coronavirus.  This doesn't sound like compassion or common sense.

The COVID-19 epidemic should not be used as an excuse for extremists to weaken our justice system.  Safety and compassion for all parties concerned should be achievable with a thoughtful plan, not a rushed one.

(As printed in The Spokesman-Review on April 25, 2020. Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, serves on the House Public Safety Committee and the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee and is a strong victims' rights advocate.)

State Representative Jenny Graham, 6th Legislative District
404 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(509) 960-5393 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000