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Originally published December 11, 2011 at 7:16 PM | Page modified December 11, 2011 at 11:25 PM

Short, fast stay in jail cuts crime, study finds

A Seattle pilot program that imposes swift, certain punishment with as little as three to five days in jail for violations of community supervision is significantly reducing drug use, incarceration and criminal activity, according to a report prepared for the Seattle City Council.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A Seattle pilot program that imposes swift, certain punishment with as little as three to five days in jail for violations of community supervision is significantly reducing drug use, incarceration and criminal activity, according to a report done for the city.

Correction officials caution that the results are based on only six months of a one-year study involving just 35 convicted criminals released back into the city under community supervision.

But the findings, to be shared with the Seattle City Council Monday, have implications for corrections statewide where more than $270 million in cuts over the past three years — and an additional $27 million projected for the current biennium — could mean early release for thousands of inmates.

Noting that the state now supervises 16,000 mostly high-risk offenders, Bernie Warner, secretary of the Department of Corrections, said the Seattle pilot project suggests that the state could potentially save millions in reduced incarceration time and crime.

"If we can get their attention and change their behavior with less jail time, that makes sense," Warner said. And the money saved on incarceration, he said, could be used to expand programs that further reduce recidivism including drug and mental-health treatment and job training.

Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, with support from Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz, approached the state last year about launching a pilot based on a successful Hawaii probation program that takes a "swift but sure" approach to violations.

The city is paying for the program evaluation. The state is using existing corrections officers but has created a dedicated team in Seattle that works closely with local police to quickly arrest any offenders who violate the terms of their community supervision, such as missing an appointment with a corrections officer or failing to attend drug treatment.

Frequent, unannounced drug testing is required of all participants. Those who fail a drug test are immediately arrested. Officials say that in the usual supervision program, ex-offenders could skip appointments with the correction officer, fail numerous drug tests and not show up for court-ordered drug treatment yet receive only a verbal or written warning.

Even when they were finally jailed for violations, the offenders could wait 14 days for a hearing and then be sentenced from 30 to 90 days. The offenders often emerge from jail homeless, jobless and at high risk to reoffend, said Chad Lewis, spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

One difference from the Hawaii program, though, is that the Seattle trial is succeeding with offenders with longer criminal histories and more serious crimes including murder, violent assaults and robbery. The only ex-offenders excluded from the trial were Level 3 sex offenders and those classified as Dangerously Mentally Ill.

Burgess said that if the preliminary results hold up, the program could be extended to all offenders released from prison to Seattle.

"These individuals are coming to our city. They're living and working here and we don't want them reoffending," he said.

A key to the program, according to the evaluators, is assembling a team of corrections and law-enforcement officials who are present at the offenders' first orientation and then hold them personally accountable for every violation.

Angela Hawken, an associate professor of economics and policy at Pepperdine University, who is evaluating the project in partnership with Mark Kleiman of the University of California, Los Angeles, rated the collaboration and responsiveness among the team members and the Seattle police, "the best we have observed across all the jurisdictions we work with."

In her 6-month evaluation prepared for the City Council, she noted that an early no-show for a morning orientation hearing was in custody that afternoon.

Marki Schillinger, the community corrections officer who supervises many of the program's 35 participants, said having the whole team present and interacting with the offenders puts them on notice that they will be held accountable for their actions.

"We tell them, 'If you mess up, I'm the one who's going to come get you. This is a new day; this is not supervision as you know it.'"

Offenders, used to breaking the rules with few consequences, also get the difference.

One repeat offender with multiple violations during previous attempts on community supervision hasn't committed a single violation under the new program. When Schillinger asked him why, she said he responded, "I could tell you guys were serious."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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