BY 2020, the Washington state prison system is predicted to be overcrowded by about 1,000 inmates. Based on that projection, Gov. Chris Gregoire included $6 million in her 2013-2015 budget to begin planning for a new $250 million prison. If nothing changes, Washington will be building its 13th prison in the near future.
Instead, let’s stop that momentum, pause and consider alternatives. It is a good moment to do so. Washington’s crime rates, across the board, are at historic lows. Despite closing prisons recently, there is no immediate risk of serious overcrowding.
And ongoing state budget deficits, plus the urgent need to fully fund education from age 3 to 23, provide good incentives to avoid adding $30 million or more per year required to operate a new prison.
Washington has been bold before in reforms to criminal justice. It was a pioneer in drug and mental-health courts, and it is 41st in the nation in the rate of prison incarceration rate in part because it refused to lock up low-level drug offenders.
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There is no magic bullet to avoid building another prison. But there are sound ideas — based on solid research, current practices and, in some cases, legislation already passed — that should be considered first.