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THE idea of expanding work release in some corners of the state, such as Snohomish County, is a tough political sell, even 31 years after Charles Campbell walked away from a county-run work-release site and killed three people.

But an expanded work-release system, where felons remain in state custody but work in the community, has strong potential to reduce demand for prison beds, save money and reduce recidivism.

A state-funded study in 2008 found there was demand for 1,200 more work-release beds, although those never materialized.

Rather than build a new prison, that plan could be dusted off. It would save thousands of dollars per bed, ease inmate re-entry by ensuring job skills, and require inmates to pay for part of their room and board.

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Other options include two newer programs designed as alternatives to traditional incarceration for felons who are raising young children. The programs, which aren’t open to violent or sex offenders, allow for highly supervised home detention for parents with short-term sentences.

They may sound risky, but both show promising results: Of the 244 participating inmates, both men and women, just four committed new felonies since the programs were launched in 2010.

Sentencing alternatives aren’t for every inmate, but with sophisticated risk-screening metrics, the state Department of Corrections could expand both work release and specialized early-release programs.

For other inmates with short-term sentences, the state could rent county jails with excess capacity. Yakima County, for example, is advertising 100 unused beds, at the bargain price of $60 a day.

Used in concert, with strict controls, these alternatives suggest options other than prison construction.

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