Twenty inmates who committed nonviolent felonies on the North Olympic Peninsula are being released under a statewide plan to stem the spread of COVID-19 in state Department of Corrections facilities.
The offenders, whose names were provided by prosecuting attorneys in Clallam and Jefferson counties, are having their sentences commuted or entering rapid re-entry or work-release furlough programs as National Crime Victims’ Rights Week comes to a close.
The 15 inmates who committed offenses in Clallam County and five who were convicted in Jefferson County are among the up to 950 that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) plans to let go; they will be monitored by the DOC.
Their offenses include illegal possession of a firearm, burglary and possession of a controlled substance, according to the DOC at tinyurl.com/PDN-EarlyRelease under the heading “Department of Corrections Incarcerated Population Reduction Efforts.”
Neither Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols nor Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney James Kennedy knew where the inmates would be living upon their release.
Information on their destinations was unavailable from a Department of Corrections spokeswoman Thursday, April 23.
Gov. Jay Inslee said April 9 he would consider releasing nonviolent offenders who are within 60 days of their release date to increase social-distancing at prisons, a move somewhat mirrored in Clallam and Jefferson counties, where arrestees are summonsed but not jailed for nonviolent offenses to prevent the spread of the virus in the jails’ close confines.
Inslee made the move in response to a state Supreme Court order to show a plan for protecting inmates in the state prisons from the spread of COVID-19.
A lawsuit argued April 23 before the state Supreme Court that more should be released, but the high court denied the request.
Columbia Legal Services sought the release of all incarcerated individuals who are at least 60 years old, have underlying conditions that make them susceptible to the highly contagious respiratory virus, or who have early release dates within 18 months.
The organization represented five inmates, none from Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Clallam County or Olympic Corrections Center in Jefferson County.
The lawsuit was filed after more than a half-dozen inmates and five DOC workers contracted the virus at Monroe Correctional Complex, the state’s second-largest prison.
Kennedy and Nichols said this week their victim-witness coordinators are contacting victims of the inmates who will be released.
Nichols and Kennedy did not know when they will be let out of prison, but release dates are listed, when they occur, at tiny url.com/PDN-EarlyRelease.
Several have been released, according to the website.
The week of April 19-25 is set aside to acknowledge the rights of crime victims, Nichols said in an interview on April 22.
“This really is bittersweet, based on what we see occurring,” he said.
Kennedy said he is concerned inmates such as those convicted of second-degree child molestation, who are not considered violent offenders, will be released as a result of the lawsuit.
Second-degree child molestation and third-degree rape are not considered violent under state law.
Nichols and Kennedy said the number of released inmates with convictions in their respective counties could increase as the legal action approaches a conclusion.
“This is an evolving situation,” Kennedy said April 23.
“It is possible that our Supreme Court may determine that the governor has not gone far enough and order that more inmates be released beyond the initial cohort of ‘nonviolent’ offenders who were close to completing their sentences,” he said in an email.
Nichols said he was worried that, while first-degree illegal possession of a firearm is a nonviolent offense, it applies to individuals who have been convicted of serious underlying crimes, including a violent offense, rape and vehicular homicide.
“We’ve had to make similar difficult decisions in our local jail, and in our prosecutorial decisions in Clallam County in response to the pandemic,” Nichols said in an email.
“It’s obviously not ideal when the criminal justice system has to relax some of its processes to accommodate public health concerns, but that is exactly what needs to happen right now,” he said.
“Many victims also are registered for electronic notifications through DOC and so should receive an electronic notification when the status of the inmate in question changes.”
If the number grows, Kennedy said he is concerned about the impact on social services such as drug treatment programs.
“My concern is they are being released at a time when we don’t have employment,” he said.
“If these people are not in a position to where they can integrate into society, they are often struggling. The risk of recidivism is exponentially increased.”