Washington faces a $5 billion budget deficit, and that has politicians looking for savings in the cell blocks.

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SPOKANE — Like many states, cash-strapped Washington is looking to save money by reducing the size of its prison population.

But the state already has been releasing nonviolent offenders for years, leaving relatively few inmates who would be good candidates for early release. Washington has about 17,000 prison inmates, well below the average for a state of 6.6 million.

“Over the last 10 years, we have moved away from incarcerating in any great numbers people who don’t deserve to be in prison,” said Tom McBride, a spokesman for the state Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

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That is not the case in all states. Huge budget deficits are causing politicians in many states to take a hard look at prisons and at the tough-on-crime laws that have locked up more people for longer periods. At least two dozen states are considering early release of inmates to save money. Tougher sentencing laws have contributed to a fourfold increase in state prison costs across the nation over two decades: from $12 billion in 1988 to more than $50 billion by 2008.

Washington faces a $5 billion budget deficit, and that has politicians looking for savings in the cell blocks.

State Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, has proposed early release of some inmates who have not committed sex offenses, murder or certain drug offenses. An inmate at low risk to reoffend could see 120 days shaved off a sentence under the proposal, while a high-risk but nonviolent inmate would get 60 days off a sentence.

Some of the money saved would be used for treatment and education programs that lower recidivism rates. “A person with a high likelihood of committing a violent offense isn’t going to be allowed to be released under this program,” Kline said.

Proponents say the state could save $6.6 million in the next two years, a tiny percentage of the deficit. Prosecutors oppose the measure.

Kline said his bill would reduce the daily prison population by about 3.5 percent. It costs about $37,000 to keep a prison inmate in Washington.

A study conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found the bill would result in 3,700 fewer crimes over the next 20 years, saving taxpayers $35 million, assuming rehabilitation works.

In Washington, discussions about reducing the prison budget come amid the horrific backdrop of the murder of a corrections officer on Jan. 29. Jayme Biendl was strangled by an inmate while working alone in the chapel at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

While prison officials have said Biendl’s murder was not related to state budget cuts, which had yet to impact Monroe much, the case has become a political football.

The union representing corrections officers is demanding a series of reforms, some of them expensive, to make the job safer.

A report by the National Institute of Corrections provided 15 recommendations, and a bill to implement some of those has been introduced in the state House.

The bill would reform offender classification at each facility; authorize a study of the use of personal body alarms and proximity cards for guards; hire a consultant to study the use of more video-monitoring cameras in prisons; and authorize a pilot program on the expanded use of pepper spray. The cost of the various studies is about $2.7 million. But full implementation of items such as monitoring cameras and body alarms would cost millions of dollars, the House Public Safety committee was told Wednesday.