GUEST OPINION | Don’t balance the budget by making communities less safe

The governor and the majority party in the legislature have referred to the state operating budget as a “moral document” that should reflect the values of our people. I believe public safety is a core value of our citizens and one of the primary functions of government. That’s why I am disappointed in recent legislation — not the least of which is the House Democrat budget proposal, House Bill 1087 — which spends $2 billion more than the 2009-11 budget, yet includes more than $31 million in additional cuts to corrections.

Putting the safety of our communities at risk to save $31 million is no way to balance a budget. The majority party’s proposed 2011-13 budget, which begins July 1, 2011, includes $26 million in reduced spending by allowing certain offenders convicted of all levels of crimes to be released from prison 120 days early.

It also purports to save $5.2 million by cutting 47 additional community corrections officers, a crippling blow to an already weakened front line. Nearly 400 similar community corrections positions were eliminated in the last budget cycle, allowing thousands of prisoners to be released with no substantive supervision. These parole officers are often the last and only line of defense for the public when dangerous criminals are released from jail or prison.

I understand tough budget choices need to be made and have offered numerous cost-saving alternatives which are less egregious and irresponsible. However, the authors of the House budget proposal seem fixated on further cuts to public safety and are not telling the public exactly who will be let out of prison early, nor that they fully expect a marked increase in crime for several years as a result. According to the state Department of Corrections, high-, medium- and low-risk offenders convicted of car theft, burglary and drug dealing, among others, will be included in the early release policy in the budget.

However the original idea to release inmates early came from Senate Bill 5866 — an alternative proposal arguably designed to finance state government at the expense of the lives of its citizens. Senate Bill 5866 would allow a 120-day sentence reduction for offenders considered a low risk to reoffend, and a 60-day sentence reduction for those considered a high risk to offend.

Nearly 2,500 offenders would have their sentences reduced under this proposal and would be back out on the streets with little or no supervision. Incredibly, when discussing the issue of early release with the sponsor of the bill, he acknowledged there would be a human price to his proposal, but intimated that the cost savings were such that we should be willing to pay it on the backs of innocent citizens.

Trading public safety for monetary benefit is a really bad deal. This legislation would also add to local government costs for law enforcement to deal with the increase in crimes early release would generate. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated an increased cost of $900,000 in local governments’ 2011-13 budgets if early release is enacted. I believe the consequences of the proposed House budget will be worse because it would enact a more liberal policy toward prison sentence reductions.

Every item in the budget requires attentive scrutiny, but instead of slashing public safety and corrections staff, why not privatize the state printer? Ferret out fraud, waste and abuse in the state’s social programs? These ideas would help reform state government and save taxpayers millions of dollars, some of which could be used to keep communities safe, educate children and protect safety net programs for vulnerable citizens like the elderly and disabled.

A sustainable, responsible budget is about choices and priorities. Balancing the budget by allowing more crimes to be committed against our citizens is immoral. We can and should do better for Washington.

Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, represents  the 39th Legislative District and can be reached at pearson.kirk@leg.wa.gov.

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