SPOKANE The population of Washington state prison inmates has become more violent, whiter and older in the past decade, an Associated Press review of Department of Corrections records has found.
And while running the prison system eats up 5 percent of the state budget, there appear to be few places that funding can be cut without resorting to releasing inmates early, as some states have done.
The main way to save money is to close a facility and lay off staff, said Tom McBride, a spokesman for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, whose members are concerned the state is running out of prison beds. When you look at our prison population, its hard to find anybody who doesnt deserve to be there.
Indeed, changes started in the 1980s have dramatically altered the prison systems population. While Washington has a relatively small prison population about 17,000 for a state of 6.6 million people the percentage of inmates serving time for violent crimes is greater than the national average.
The idea of releasing some inmates early to help reduce the projected $4.6 billion deficit in the next two-year state budget is being discussed in Olympia, officials say, although no bill has been introduced.
We have taken no position on that, said John Lane, of Gov. Chris Gregoires policy office.
At a legislative hearing on Wednesday, Steve Aos of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy estimated that cutting 60 days off the sentence of low- and moderate-risk offenders could save the state $4.6 million a year, with just a 15 percent probability that crime would rise as a result.
The Corrections Department cannot release inmates early without authorization from the Legislature.
The Corrections Department closed an expensive prison for elderly inmates in Yakima last year, consolidating most of those inmates at the Coyote Ridge prison near Pasco. It is now preparing to close the McNeil Island Corrections Center in April.
The majority of the inmates in Washington prisons are being held for violent crimes like murder, rape and assault, according to figures provided by the state Department of Corrections. There were 11,835 inmates (69 percent) serving time for violent crimes in 2010, and 5,240 (30 percent) serving time for drugs, property crimes or the category of other.
In 2000, 62 percent of Washington prison inmates were doing time for violent crimes and 37 percent for drugs, property crimes or other.
Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 52.4 percent of state prison inmates were doing time for violent crimes in 2008, the latest year available.
In Washington, the big change in the prison population has been the reduction of people serving time for drugs. That fell from 3,208 in 2000, 21 percent of inmates, to 1,714 by 2010, 10 percent of inmates.
The reduction is a result of various state laws that reduced sentences for many drug crimes while increasing them for violent crimes.
Its not clear if more violent inmates mean that conditions inside the 13 prisons are more dangerous. Female guard Jayme Biendl was strangled inside the chapel of the Monroe Correctional Complex on Jan. 29. According to court papers, inmate Byron Scherf who is 52 and serving a life sentence for rape told detectives in a videotaped interview that he killed her.
Biendl is the first corrections officer to be killed on the job in decades.
Officials at Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections officers, believes the prison population is more dangerous than it used to be. The closure of McNeil Island will only make that worse, said Tracey Thompson, chief executive officer of the union.
Overcrowding with a lot more violent criminals in the system is going to be a recipe for disaster, Thompson said.
The union also contends that too many prisoners are being reclassified by prison administrators from violent to nonviolent, which allows them to be placed in the general population. Scherf, for instance, entered the prison system as a maximum-security inmate but had been moved to medium security because of good behavior.
The union would like to see an overhaul of the classification system, she said.
The state is also expected to have 2,000 more inmates by 2016 and needs a new prison, Thompson said.
The crime rate in the Evergreen State is the lowest in two decades. And the state ranks well below the national average in violent crime, mostly because violent offenders are locked away, McBride said. The downside is that Washington suffers above-normal amounts of property crime, because many of those offenders do not receive prison time, McBride said.
Washington has a prison population of just less than three inmates per 1,000 residents, well below the national average of more than five inmates per 1,000.
Over the decade, blacks and Hispanics declined as a share of the states prison population, while there were higher percentages of whites, American Indians and Asian/Pacific Islanders.
In 2010, whites were 64 percent of the prison population, blacks 18 percent, Hispanics 8 percent, American Indians 4.3 percent, Asian/Pacific Islanders 3.5 percent. In 2000, whites made up 58.9 percent of Washingtons prison population, while blacks constituted 22 percent, Hispanics 12.2 percent, American Indians 3.6 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islanders were 2.7 percent, according to the Corrections Department.
Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said 35.5 percent of all state prison inmates were white in 2008. The racial makeup of a states prison population depends largely on the racial distribution of the states population, said Paige Harrison, a bureau statistician.
The inmate population is getting older, which is the result both of the aging baby-boomer population and tough-on-crime laws that mandated longer sentences, McBride said.
In Washington, the average age of an inmate was 37.6 years for men and 36.6 years for women in 2010. That was up from 34.9 years for men and 34.4 years for women in 2000.
The Department of Corrections received 4.4 percent of the state budget in the biennium that ended in 2001, costing $972 million. That rose to 5 percent of the state budget in the current two-year cycle, at $1.5 billion, according to the Office of Financial Management. The governors proposed budget for the next biennium would increase Corrections to 5.3 percent of the budget.