When a heinous crime occurs, a compassionate community is one that quickly steps in to help victims and their family members. Paramedics, nurses and doctors provide medical aid; police and prosecutors arrest and charge those responsible; neighbors and friends rush in to provide comfort.
But what if the victims or the family members decide that the community at large is responsible for the crime itself?
That question is at the center of a lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections on behalf of the juvenile son of Jim Sanders, killed during a 2010 home invasion robbery dubbed the Craigslist Murder.
It was a shocking crime. Kiyoshi Higashi and Joshua Reese were convicted of killing Sanders after savagely beating both him and his then fourteen-year-old son, James Jr. The killers were under the supervision of the Department of Corrections at the time, and their lengthy sentences (124 and 100 years respectively) equate to de facto life imprisonment.
It is difficult to even fathom the depths of anguish this atrocity has visited upon the Sanders family. Unfortunately, they are not alone in their grief – per the FBI Uniform Crime Report, more than 8,700 people were murdered with firearms in 2010 alone. Holding the Department of Corrections accountable for the actions of Higashi and Reese, however, won’t solve this problem.
In fact, it could make it worse.
Suing the State of Washington is an easy choice. The notion of “deep pockets” is so firmly embedded in our litigious society that a google search will find the term defined in Wikipedia and analyzed by ethics experts: “Public entities are sometimes tempting targets for lawsuits because they can pay out big settlements.” (Miriam Schulman, Markkula Center for Ethics, Santa Clara University).
The problem is that those pockets are not so deep after all. Years of payouts have taken their toll on DOC, whose Community Corrections Officers serve as overseers for countless violent offenders. There are now far fewer CCO’s handling felons released from overcrowded prisons, largely because of outsized settlements against the department.
The calculus is even further troubling. According to one DOC supervisor I spoke with following a warrant arrest last year, budget issues have led to a drop in the percentage of released felons ordered into supervision. With fewer probation officers, what do you expect, I wondered. No, he told me, the real reason is that fewer supervised felons meant fewer multi-million dollar lawsuits.
That is some pretty cold logic.
Admittedly, there are DOC employees who fail to properly handle their caseload. Yet the demands on CCOs are huge. With a caseload of scores, sometimes hundreds of felons, they are responsible for hauling in offenders who violate their probation. Even when they locate and arrest these elusive and often dangerous subjects, the maximum sentence DOC officials can dole out to violators is a mere six weeks in jail.
It is impossible to know whether DOC could have prevented the hellish nightmare visited upon the Sanders family. What is apparent, however, is that money awarded in similar lawsuits has resulted in less supervision over violent criminals like Higashi and Reese. The truth is, we need more probation officers, not less, because there are plenty of scary individuals on DOC’s shrunken list.
We need to accept that violent people live among us. Some are felons who rely on their probation officers for guidance back into society. More than a few, however, require daily supervision just to keep them from slipping back into dangerous habits.
Because of lawsuits aimed at the increasingly shallow pockets of Washington taxpayers, that is a level of supervision we can no longer afford.
I was forwarded an email from Chad Lewis, the communications director at the Department of Corrections, regarding this column. He wanted to correct some of the above, and I thought it fair to include his comments. Since it’s my column, though, I get the last word.
- There are fewer community corrections officers today, but that’s not because of lawsuits. Payouts for lawsuits are paid out of an insurance policy that DOC and other agencies pay a premium for, not out of our operational budget.
- The layoffs were actually the result of two laws that passed – one 2009 and another in 2011 – that decreased the number of offenders we supervise in the community, from about 29,000 in 2009 to about 15,000 today, which meant we needed fewer community corrections officers.
- The two laws ended supervision of nearly 14,000 lower-risk offenders, allowing us to focus our remaining resources on higher-risk offenders. Today, about 65 percent of the offenders we supervise across the state are higher-risk offenders.
- The laws didn’t increase the number of offenders that each community corrections officer supervises. In fact, it ended the practice of having some officers supervising 350 or 400 lower-risk offenders. Today, nearly all officers supervise between 35 and 45 offenders. Their caseloads include a higher percentage of higher-risk offenders, but that’s because now the total caseload is mostly higher-risk offenders.
Thanks to Chad Lewis for weighing in on this issue. However…
Taking Mr. Lewis at his word, assuming DOC’s multi-million dollar payments are paid through a private insurance firm, there is little doubt that a succession of such claims would undoubtedly cause a significant rise in the state’s premium payments.
Yes, the legislature was the driving force behind the reduction in community corrections officers, just as it was responsible for eliminating oversight for “low risk offenders.” The timing coincided with the Great Recession, of course, so money was again a factor. During that period, I personally had several felons classified low risk slip off active supervision. They were bad dudes, to be sure, and they kept us hopping almost immediately.
It is good to know that the workload for the remaining CCOs is more manageable now. Unfortunately, with budget restrictions and lawsuits (which can not be ruled out as a factor, at least in my opinion), the thousands of offenders no longer being visited by CCOs are free to do whatever they please.
Thank you, Mr. Lewis, but your clear and concise explanation does not change my mind.