Haven't Cons and Their Kids Been Separated Long Enough?

A new state law is keeping families apart, even after a convict is released.

Throughout much of October and November, Leah League started her weekdays at 3:30 in the morning. She would rise, get dressed, and head out the door of her Tacoma house for a bus commute to Olympia that took two and a half hours and required up to four transfers. After working a full day as a landscaper, she'd do the commute again in reverse, reaching home by 7:30 or 8 p.m., by which time she was often so tired she would fall asleep before eating dinner. League, 42, recognized that the sensible thing was to move to Olympia. But she couldn't. An ex-convict, she was trapped in Tacoma by a new law that requires former prisoners to return to the county where they were first convicted, and stay there, while under Department of Corrections supervision, for one to two years. League had found her landscaping job while living at a work-release facility in Olympia, just prior to her official departure from prison. She'd gone into a treatment program for her drug addiction (the source of many of her nine felonies), joined Narcotics Anonymous, and made clean-and-sober friends—"a whole new life," she says. But when she was forced to move back to Pierce County—where she'd been convicted of a string of felonies, most recently a little more than a year ago for possession of drugs and a stolen car—she felt as though the state was yanking her new life away. "It can be done," she says of her attempt to commute to that life in Olympia. "But, it's pretty devastating," she says, starting to cry as she describes constant fatigue from an existence spent either working or waiting for buses. "I can imagine a lot of people not making it." If people can't make it in their new, law-abiding life, she implies, they'll fall back into their old, not so law-abiding ways. Which is precisely the opposite of what Senate Bill 6157 intends. The law, which was passed this spring and took effect on July 22, was supposed to reduce recidivism by building up community resources for released prisoners and developing "re-entry" plans that require them to participate in treatment programs and support groups. The requirement to return prisoners to their "county of origin" is one little piece of the bill. Under that provision, newly released inmates must return to the county where they were first convicted—even if they've had multiple convictions since—regardless of where they were last living. It came about because of a pet peeve on the part of Pierce County, namely a feeling that Tacoma and its environs were a dumping ground for ex-cons. "The Pierce County prosecutor absolutely insisted on it because of the belief that once folks are released to Pierce County, they become Pierce County's problem forever," says Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, one of the bill's prime sponsors. Pierce County has developed a number of attractive support programs for released prisoners, Regala says, but was suffering for its good deeds under the old system that gave offenders wide latitude as to where they could return. Regala acknowledges that ex-cons may not have lived at the site of their first crime for years, maybe decades, and may have family, including spouses and children, in a different county. "In some cases, people don't even know where their first conviction was," she says. But Regala overcame her reservations about the provision in order to get the broader bill passed. In some cases, convicts are now being sent back to a crime scene that they'd only been passing through. That's Dawn Wiltzius' story. It was the summer after her junior year at the University of Washington when the premed student started driving herself, her boyfriend, and another friend back to Spokane from a gathering at her family's cabin in Stevens County. Having drunk some beers during the party, she swung too fast around a curve on a winding mountain road in Pend Oreille County, and ended up half-submerged in a marsh. She kicked her way out of the car and survived. Her passengers were not so lucky. She was charged with vehicular homicide. After serving four years in jail, she was set to return to UW in September but, she says, was told by her prison counselor a week before her release date that because of the new law, she had to move to Pend Oreille, located in the northeast part of the state. "The only two people she knew there were the two people she met in the [local] jail," says her mother, Kerry Wiltzius, who lives in Spokane. "One taught her how to make crack, another told her about killing her husband." "That's why the deviation process is there," responds Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, a prime sponsor of SB-6157. He's speaking about four exceptions that are built into the law, including the presence of family or other support elsewhere. In the end, Wiltzius got an exception approved in time to start UW classes in the fall, but that was after her mom contacted legislators who intervened. "If my mom hadn't been out there fighting, it would have taken who knows how long," Wiltzius says, sitting in a cafe near the university, a thin, blond 25-year-old exuding an aura of sober restraint that hints at a past otherwise unrevealed by her student outfit of jeans and a fleece jacket. But many other ex-cons haven't been so lucky, says Judy Riggan, president of Rebuilding Families Inc., which helps female ex-cons re-enter society. Prison counselors, who are the ones allowed to seek exceptions with higher-ups on behalf of offenders, "are feeling they don't have permission to apply," Riggan says. Consequently, "oftentimes, people are being sent to counties where they have no positive support." It's a particular problem, she says, when children are involved who live outside the county of origin, or when that county has negative influences from which an ex-con is trying to break free. Chris Grant, 24, has both those issues. The state ordered him back to Mason County, where he lived as a child and was first busted at age 13, for theft. It's a place of "bad acquaintances," he says, "drug addicts and other criminals." Besides, he has a job and a 21-month-old son in Thurston County, where he last lived. The child is in foster care, and Grant has been working with the state to get him back. He says he has taken parenting classes and completed other requirements. But he says the Department of Social and Health Services wants him to get an apartment of his own in Thurston County before it will allow him to regain custody of his son. The Department of Corrections prohibits him from doing so. For Diane Dasher, a friend of League's, Tacoma was the place where she got addicted to heroin and spiraled downward, from a life working as a nurse to one living on the streets, periodically getting arrested for drugs, shoplifting, and prostitution. When she was told she had to go back there, she says, "I was terrified. It put temptation right there in my face." True to her fears, people greeted her homecoming with offers of getting high. Whereas in Olympia—where she, too, had spent time in a work-release facility—she says she had made only constructive associations. "I know there are drugs in Olympia, but I don't know where they are." Like League, she kept her job in Olympia while living in Tacoma. But she put her thrice-weekly drug treatment program on hold, since the sessions were at night and the last bus from Olympia to Tacoma left at 7. And she cut back on her participation in her Olympia Narcotics Anonymous group. Belinda Stewart, re-entry implementation administrator for the DOC, concedes that problems have arisen as the agency has wrestled with the new law. "When the law was first implemented, we pretty much said no exceptions," she says. "Then we started to back away from that." The department set up a special board to look at requests for exceptions, and in the process set policy that refined criteria. In late October, the department sent out a memo saying that prison counselors didn't have to first try to create a plan in the county of origin before seeking an exception—something they previously had to do even if it was obvious that the county was a bad choice—provided that prisoners had supportive family elsewhere. Still, Stewart says there's "a lot of gray area" that sometimes makes it challenging for the DOC to create the best re-entry plans within the confines of the law. As the DOC relaxed its policies, League and Dasher got a break. After six weeks and a month, respectively, of cross-county commutes, they got permission to move to Olympia. The group house where they had both been accepted before the new law took effect is now full, however. So while they look for their own homes, Dasher is staying with someone from Narcotics Anonymous while League is bouncing between her grown son's house and motels. "That's not a healthy place for a drug addict to be," Dasher says, worried in particular about her friend's transient state. "It's the way we used to live when we were using." nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

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