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A simple, elegant way to reduce crime and save money

More than half of inmates in state prisons and local jails are mentally ill.

They get medicine for those illnesses while behind bars. So what happens when they get out?

This is a big problem for Washington state and for America, which releases 650,000 prisoners a year. As this piece in Slate.com shows, about 40 percent of those ex-cons will wind up back behind bars.

The cost to taxpayers is high, since it’s $100,000 to build a single prison cell and about $40,000 to guard and feed one prisoner for a year. That doesn’t tally other costs for judges, prosecutors, police officers and courts.

What if a simple, cheap step could help stop that revolving door?

Iowa is one state experimenting with such a reform.

Here’s how the Slate.com story describes it:

Iowa is experimenting with an elegantly simple solution. Under the Central Pharmacy Pilot Project, an inmate is still given his 30-day supply of medication upon his release but is also handed prescriptions for an additional 60 days of medication.

The pilot program has been running for less than two years, but the early returns are promising. Through the program’s first nine months—the last time the stats were compiled—none of the 165 participants had been charged with a violent crime in the first 90 days after his release, compared to 1.6 percent of a similar population of severely mentally ill former inmates who were not in the program. The gains were even more pronounced when it came to the type of smaller violations that can land an ex-con back in prison for violating the conditions of his release. Less than 3 percent of participants suffering from less severe but still chronic mental illnesses had their releases revoked, compared with 11.3 percent of nonparticipants with similar conditions.

There’s also a case to be made for substance abuse treatment, since a large percentage of inmates either committed their original crime while high or got involved with property crimes to feed an addiction.

A study by the Pew Trusts showed the benefits of a two-pronged approach along those lines. Here’s a short summary of their conclusions:

Research has shown that health care, particularly in the areas of substance abuse and mental illness, reduces the likelihood of ex-offenders returning to prison.

Researchers and advocacy groups say the benefits of providing health care to ex-felons do not end with the ex-felons themselves. Prisons have high rates of hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis. Untreated former prisoners carry those diseases into communities on the outside and spread those infections.

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Is German higher-ed really tuition free?

Yes it is!

And not just for Germans.

All German universities are now free to Americans and all other international students. Just this week the last German state to charge tuition eradicated those fees. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Argentina, France, Greece and Finland are among several nations that offer free higher education to their students.

German colleges had been tuition free up until 2006 when their supreme court ruled tuition could be charged. But that decision triggered a huge crush of criticism from the electorate. Lower Saxony was the last region to phase out tuition.

When explaining the reasoning for the move, Dorothee Stapelfeldt, a Hamburg senator, she said the fees were “socially unjust” adding that tuition fees “discouraged young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study.”

Things are different in America when it comes to ensuring everyone can afford an education. State budget writers, including Washington’s, have been dipping into higher-ed budgets to cover shortfalls brought on by the recession. Now with the recession technically over, those funds have yet to be reinvested into the higher-ed system.

The de-investment in higher-ed by the states (and subsequent rise in tuition rates) has not been just a recessionary phenomenon. It has been going for over thirty years.

This has led to crushing debt loads being taken on by students and their families to cover the cost of their education.

So how much would it cost the U.S. to make higher education tuition free? According to recent studies, if the federal government were to kick in the money they already spend on its cornucopia of financial aid programs (Pell grants, student loans, etc.), that would cover it.

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Are you ready for the Big One?

 Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.

–Miguel de Cervantes

The Big One could come from any direction. Big earthquake. Big storm. Big fire, big flood or, as we were reminded so suddenly and so tragically last March, big landslide. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know when the Big One will happen. But it’s a reasonably sure bet that it will, one of these days, and when it does, it will pay to be prepared.

That’s the thinking behind Washington State Disaster Preparedness Month, also known as October. Be aware. Think ahead. Be prepared. To that end, a number of government offices and nonprofits are offering tips this month on how families and businesses can plan now to come out the other side in one piece. For instance:

  • Preparing Your Home from the Emergency Management Division of our own Washington Military Department, which also features the

Here in Washington, of course, a likely suspect for the Big One is an earthquake, which is where the Great Washington Shakeout comes in. Thursday, October 16, at 10:16 a.m., nearly a million Washingtonians have pledged to stop what they’re doing and practice their earthquake-survival techniques. If that sounds like fun, circle the date and get ready to Drop, Cover, and Hold On.

And here’s an idea: Once you’ve mastered those skills, why not reward yourself with a tasty Washington-grown apple? This happens to be National Apple Month, too.

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Do we agree on anything political?

According to most news reports, the political divide in our country has never been deeper. Viewers of PBS’s recent series on the Roosevelts already know that isn’t true, but just try to find much in the mainstream press discussing anything besides our differences.

 And to be sure, Democrats and Republicans disagree on many issues and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But we must agree on some things, right?

Well, yes. Just look at our legislature where a huge percentage of bills are passed nearly unanimously every session.

And on many major issues, sizable majorities across the country are in agreement, according to a recently released survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

According to their findings…

  • Approximately two-thirds (66%) of Americans agree that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, while roughly one-third (32%) disagree.
  • Roughly 6-in-10 (57%) Americans favor increasing the tax rate on Americans earning more than $250,000 per year, while 37% are opposed.
  • About 7-in-10 (69%) Americans favor increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour.
  • Approximately 8-in-10 (78%) Americans favor requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child.
  • Approximately 8-in-10 (81%) Americans favor requiring companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days if they or an immediate family member gets sick.

It appears when we forget our partisan affiliations, and look at our politics issue by issue, there is more agreement and consensus in our nation than we otherwise may have thought.

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Seattle prospers – but rich-poor gap also grows

We blogged last week about how income inequality is growing in Washington. Now we have new information about the increasing gap between high earners  and lower earners in Seattle.

The richest 20 percent of Seattle residents earned an extra $15,000 in 2013, compared to 2012 – more than the total average income of the bottom 20 percent of workers.

That’s according to a new story by Gene Balk in The Seattle Times, which crunched numbers from the Census Bureau to uncover these trends.

Here’s the money quote, which is literally about the money:

For the 20 percent of city households at the top of the income ladder, things couldn’t be better. Their earnings averaged $248,000 in 2013 — a hefty $15,000 jump from 2012. But for the 20 percent of households at the bottom, incomes averaged just $13,000, unchanged from the previous year.

You read that right: The $15,000 increase for the city’s highest earners exceeded the entire average income for the poorest Seattleites.

Balk’s story points out that good news—Seattle’s prosperity, which includes a big jump in overall incomes and creating the most jobs of any city in the nation—also leads to problems, including skyrocketing prices for housing. That includes renters.

As the Times reports, even tiny studio apartments now rent for $1,600 a month, which is more than the total income of a worker in that bottom 20 percent.

Other recent stories point out that in Seattle, and worldwide, cities are becoming unaffordable for regular workers and the middle class. Instead of professionals and the rich living in leafy suburbs and commuting to work, they’re moving back into the cities they abandoned after World War II. This reverse migration is pushing former city dwellers further and further out into the suburbs, with many of these regular workers relying on mass transit instead of cars, making their commutes even longer.

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