The state Department of Corrections is taking a look at the number of prisoners it releases into the Yakima area, which city officials say has become a dumping ground for the state.
City officials, including police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr., say former inmates are flooding the city’s social services and making efforts to clean up North First Street more difficult.
But some service providers say that’s more perception than reality and not all the numbers regarding the former inmates are clear.
In a one-year period ending last June, 353 of the 6,500 prisoners released by the state Corrections Department came to Yakima.
Some of those — the number isn’t clear — committed crimes outside Yakima County. But under state law, prisoners are usually released to the county where they were convicted of their first crime, not the county where they were most recently convicted.
“They’re not the problem of the county they came from. They’re now a problem of the city of Yakima,” Rizzi said. “Instead of taking care of those who are from Yakima, now we can’t take care of anybody, because the system becomes flooded.”
However, social service providers don’t necessarily agree that prisoners from outside the community are overwhelming available resources.
“That’s a perception shared by a lot of community leaders,” said Tim Sullivan, who manages the housing and homeless program for Yakima County Human Services. “I think if you talked to a lot of service providers in our area, you’d find that isn’t the case.”
Rizzi says that without ties to the community, some former prisoners end up homeless and return to crime.
But Sullivan said annual surveys of the local homeless population show that only 5 percent to 10 percent of them aren’t from the area.
Homelessness doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with crime, said Rick Phillips, director of the Union Gospel Mission on North First Street.
“Those people who seek help, they aren’t the problem,” he said.
Rizzi said many of those released end up in cheap motels around North First Street, which is “where we’re having a problem with crime.”
He says the trend can’t continue, and other counties need to step up and take responsibility for those they send to state prisons.
The city recently embarked on a long-term effort to upgrade North First, which is one of Yakima’s major gateways. Efforts include plans for improving sidewalks, lights and storefronts, plus more aggressive inspections of motels.
In many cases, the rates at establishments on North First Street may be too high for a recently released prisoner to afford.
Model prisoners can receive up to $500 a month for housing from the Corrections Department for three months after their release.
Last year, the department approved 941 out of about 1,500 applicants for housing vouchers. Figures specific to Yakima County were not immediately available.
But $500 isn’t enough for a month at the Bali Hai Motel on North First Street, owner Sonny Shah said.
Shah said he was contacted two or three times last year by inmates about to be released and had to turn them down.
At the same time, several North First Street apartments and motels do cater to former prisoners, Shah said. “First Street already has its own problems.”
Last fall, state corrections officials noticed that Yakima County was receiving more prisoners than it produced, and took steps to stop the trend from growing, said Chad Lewis, a department spokesman in Olympia.
“Now, there’s extra scrutiny given to release plans for Yakima County.”
• Dan Catchpole can be reached at 509-759-7850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.