Metropolitan King County Council Chair Bob Ferguson has introduced legislation that would ban criminal defendants with a history of sexual and violent crimes from being released under community corrections alternatives.
When someone has been charged with a crime and is awaiting trial, judges have a number of choices. They can hold defendants in jail, release them on personal recognizance, set bail, or allow them to take advantage of less restrictive community corrections alternatives, such as electronic home-monitoring or work release.
But according to Metropolitan King County Council Chair Bob Ferguson, judges often don’t have critical information about an offender’s previous convictions in front of them when making that decision.
Ferguson last week introduced legislation that would ban criminal defendants with a history of sexual or violent crimes from being released under the community corrections alternatives.
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Ferguson is proposing a moratorium on such releases for violent or sexual offenders until the county can implement a valid assessment tool to help inform judges’ decisions.
The tool, which Ferguson says would likely be based on inexpensive software, would provide results similar to what is already being done by hand in juvenile court.
Juvenile court judges are informed of a defendant’s prior criminal history, as well as an assessment of the youth’s likelihood to re-offend, before release decisions are made, Ferguson said.
“By all accounts that seems to be quite successful,” he said. “And for years, there has been conversation that this tool is something we need, but we’ve been slow to get it for adults. It’s time to put this on the front burner and get moving.”
The legislation will be referred to the County Council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee on Aug. 16, where discussions will begin.
Ferguson said his office has determined that approximately 1,000 individuals were released through community corrections services last year. Of those released, 263 had been charged with sexual or violent crimes.
“What we don’t know is how many of those 263 had a prior conviction for violent or sex crimes. We also were unable to get information on how many of them reoffended while they were out on community corrections or how many failed to appear,” Ferguson said.
“That information needs to be in front of the judge when he is making the critical decision on whether to set bail, how high to set bail and, if they can make bail, whether they are eligible for the community corrections alternatives,” Ferguson said.
According to a news release issued by Fergusons’ office last week, the pretrial risk-assessment tool would weigh objective criteria, including past criminal history and ties to the community, to assess the risk that a defendant could pose while awaiting trial.
“Our criminal-justice system needs a risk-assessment tool to identify those most likely to pose a danger to public safety while awaiting trial,” said Ferguson. “Without a risk-assessment tool, the chance that high-risk individuals are being released into the community is too great. I am not willing to bet the public’s safety.”
He said the County Council directed the Office of Management and Budget to review the screening, processing and monitoring procedures of community corrections alternatives three years ago and that the OMB recommended the county consider instituting a risk-assessment tool to ensure that detention and alternatives are used appropriately.
Ferguson said he does not believe his legislation is perfect, but that he is proposing it to get the conversation started.
“I’m looking forward to hearing from judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and community corrections,” he said.
The King County Corrections Guild has weighed in on the proposal.
“This issue has been one of our top priorities, and we greatly appreciate Councilmember Ferguson’s leadership. We fully support his proposal and appreciate his focus on public safety,” Sgt. Doug Justus, president of the King County Corrections Guild, was quoted as saying in Ferguson’s news release.
“We have serious concerns that bad actors are being released through community corrections and pose a public-safety risk,” he said.
Justus could not be reached for further comment Friday.
Community corrections alternatives are available for people awaiting trial and some people who have already been convicted.
State law places limits on who is eligible for the less-restrictive alternatives following convictions, but does not place conditions on pretrial defendants.
The issue was highlighted for Ferguson when he was appointed to the state’s Bail Work Group after the killing of four Lakewood police officers by Maurice Clemmons, a violent offender who had been released on bail.
“There is widespread agreement that such a tool will enhance public safety in our communities, and I am determined to put it in place as quickly as possible,” Ferguson said.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org