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Originally published December 3, 2009 at 4:28 PM | Page modified December 4, 2009 at 11:24 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Washington's dire budget might threaten programs to help felons be successful

Washington state should not make any more cuts to supervising criminals released from prison. Despite the daunting budget crisis, state reforms shown to be successful in helping some felons stay out of jail should be preserved.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Through all the news about the slain Lakewood police officers and the manhunt to find their killer, I kept thinking about state Sen. Mike Carrell, who represents the city.

Just two weeks earlier, in an oped on this page, the Lakewood Republican sounded an alarm about how progress made toward prison reform in 2007 was threatened by budget cuts as the state struggles through recession-racked times. The member of the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee worried last year's cuts in supervising released offenders would "create a perfect storm of crime that is about to overtake our state."

Those reforms were prompted after three police officers in King County were killed by released offenders. The reforms included an offender re-entry program to help felons transition successfully to life after prison, and signs were good that the extra help was reducing recidivism rates.

But as the recession drained state revenues last year, the Legislature cut back on how long the state Department of Corrections supervises offenders released from prison. When it convenes again in January, lawmakers face another daunting budget deficit. Gov. Chris Gregoire this week said she is proposing some tax increases because, without them, the choices of what to cut are too grim.

One grim option that should be avoided, in light of the horrifying murders of the four Lakewood officers, is any more cuts to supervision of released offenders and the state's successful reforms to help those released get traction outside of prison walls. That saves money.

Maurice Clemmons, who killed the officers, apparently was making a living with a landscaping business and possibly was suffering from mental illness. Nevertheless, this case points out the importance of the state keeping contact with offenders and helping them stay out of trouble, a focus of the 2007 reforms.

The bipartisan effort, also led by Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, was so attention-getting that four members of the British House of Commons' Select Committee on Justice and the United Kingdom's deputy consul general visited the state last year to learn more.

I called Carrell to talk to him about the tragedy in his hometown. Obviously pained, he said, "I am sorry to have been prophetic."

However, he is quick to draw the distinction that the state cuts did not bear on the handling of Clemmons. Indeed, Washington officials tried with the tools they had to detain Clemmons on other charges. But Arkansas, which had released him on parole to Washington through an interstate agreement, had withdrawn a warrant that would have kept him in custody — oddly on the speculation of Clemmons' sketchy Arkansas attorney that the charges would be dropped. A second warrant issued did not appear to have been enforceable.

Nevertheless, the holes exposed by this tragedy — that a bad guy with pending third-strike charges couldn't be held; that Arkansas did not hold up its end of a bargain on one of its own dumped in Washington; that a bail bond business was in charge of Clemmons' ankle bracelet — are troubling.

Both Carrell and Regala will follow closely the efforts of the state Department of Corrections and local law enforcement as they assess the case — what went wrong and what could have been done better at least as far as the things they had control over. The governor's unequivocal declaration she will not take any more Arkansas parolees at least for now is a good start.

Meanwhile, as the wheels continue to shake off the state revenue engine in this recession, the Legislature should not make more cuts to progress that has been made to help felons stay out of jail and keep citizens safe.

"If we end up having to cut programs that help people have a job or get training with job skills so they can be successful, that saddens me," Regala said.

It would also be costly — housing returning criminals for years costs a lot more than helping them for a few months get some traction on lives outside prison walls.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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