Mass release of prisoners a big mistake, Sheldon says

Threatens public safety, violates state constitution, makes state liable for new crimes

OLYMPIA – Democrat Tim Sheldon is joining Republicans in the Washington state Senate to protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s planned release of 1,167 prison inmates during the current coronavirus epidemic.

Not only do the releases pose a public safety threat, they also violate the Washington state constitution, Sheldon observes. That means the state will be on the hook for millions of dollars of liability when improperly released prisoner commit new crimes, he said.

“Putting convicted felons back on the street is bad for public safety, it’s bad for state government and it’s bad for the inmates themselves,” Sheldon said.

Inslee has ordered the prisoner releases in response to an order from the state Supreme Court that the state take “all necessary steps” to protect inmates from the spread of COVID-19. The court didn’t tell Inslee how to do it, however, and the mass release of prisoners is the governor’s idea.

Sheldon, who represents Mason County and parts of Kitsap and Thurston counties, joined all 20 Senate Republicans in sending a letter of protest to the governor last week. He has three corrections facilities in his district – the Washington Corrections Center at Shelton, Misson Creek Corrections Center for Women at Belfair and Cedar Creek Corrections Center at Littlerock. Sheldon said smaller communities will feel a particularly heavy burden when prisoners are released. He notes that one-third of offenders typically are arrested for new crimes within three years of release.

“Normally when prisoners are released, we worry about things like where they will live, what sort of jobs might be available for them, and what sort of community support services are available,” Sheldon said. “All that has gone out the window. We might as well just throw open the doors. At a time when the virus appears to have peaked and infections are on the decline, the case for a mass release is pretty weak. And it seems pure recklessness when the state has better options.”

To minimize the spread of the virus, Sheldon said the state could expand work-release programs, use portable facilities, or house prisoners at the Maple Lane facility near Centralia, where Corrections’ central pharmacy is located.

Nothing about the releases actually protects the prisoners from the virus, Sheldon notes. In other states that have attempted prisoner releases, some have contracted the illness promptly after release. “This is one population that seems to have trouble following the rules,” Sheldon said. “The best way to protect them is to maintain state supervision.”

The constitutional prohibition on the governor’s mass-release plan appears in Article I, Section 35 of the Washington constitution, also known as the “Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights.” That section, approved by an overwhelming 78 percent vote of the people in 1989, requires that crime victims be notified of all relevant proceedings and that they be given the opportunity to object when early release is considered.

“The governor has said he does not plan to notify crime victims or give them a chance to speak,” Sheldon said. “He says there’s not enough time. What he probably realizes is that by the time hearings could be held on each individual case, the current crisis will have passed. Already infections are peaking and deaths are now on the decline.

“The real problem is that many in my party are bent on shortening sentences, releasing prisoners early, and reducing the tough-on-crime measures that have done so much to reduce our crime rate over the last 25 years. This crisis came along at a good time for them. But this is one time a crisis should be allowed to go to waste.”