OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- About two dozen seriously ill prisoners in Washington state could soon be released from prison -- as long as their freedom is expected to save the cash-strapped state money.
A new state law, which takes effect Saturday, expands a current program to release chronically or terminally ill prisoners. Death row inmates, or those serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, are not eligible for early release.
Washington is among more than 30 states that have some form of early release program for seriously ill prisoners, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The move will save the Washington state Department of Corrections an estimated $800,000 over the next two years, mainly on things like prescription costs and transporting prisoners to off-prison medical treatment.
But the state Department of Social and Health Services estimates it could see significant increases in its budget if it has to place all of those released in state-paid nursing homes or provide additional mental health services -- offsetting any savings and possibly adding more costs to the already hampered state budget.
That frustrates some lawmakers like Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup. He voted in favor of the bill twice while it was moving through legislative committees, but ultimately voted against it on the House floor because of concerns over costs. The state had to make major cuts this year to patch a $9 billion budget deficit.
"I was prepared to speak out in support of this bill in our caucus room, and then as I reviewed the fiscal note again, it had changed," Dammeier said. "It's not clear-cut, it's not easy to define, and it's not going to clearly result in savings."
The number of prisoners who would actually be released is unknown. Also unclear is how many of those released would end up relying on social safety net programs.
Even the state corrections chief admits the program expansion is a work in progress.
"We continue to think this will save the state money, but we won't know that for sure until we're down the road," said Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail. "Will it in every case? That's the goal. You can't know until they leave the system."
Under the law signed by Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire in May, the head of corrections can authorize early medical release only if certain conditions are met. The offender must have a serious medical condition that is expected "to require costly care or treatment." They must pose a low risk to the community because they are physically incapacitated or expected to be at the time of release. And the release must be expected to save the state money.
The department works to see if prisoners qualify for private or veteran's health coverage. Barring other options, they arrange for Medicaid, which is paid for partially by the state and partly with federal money.
Vail said some of the prisoners have such serious health problems that they are already in state nursing homes, with an armed guard paid to be with them. So under the program, not much changes except the lack of a guard, he said.
"The state is still paying for the hospital bed, but the state is no longer paying for the correctional officer to stand watch," Vail said.
The main change to the current early release program, which has been in place since 1999, is that it no longer requires the prisoner be incapacitated before being approved for release. Fifty-five offenders have been released since 1999 under the earlier program, and two more have been approved and are currently awaiting placement in the community.
Sherry Lynn Bradford, a 40-year-old prisoner at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor, hopes that she will be one of the prisoners released under the new expanded law. Bradford, who has hepatitis C and has had two surgeries to address liver failure, was denied parole last year under the old program because she wasn't yet incapacitated.
She said that during her last surgery earlier this month, "my doctor didn't sugarcoat it."
"He said my liver is very sick and the only way I'm going to live is to get a new one," she said.
Bradford has been in and out of prison since 1997 on drug charges, with her most recent conviction in 2006 for possession of a controlled substance, with intent to manufacture or deliver cocaine. She is set to be released on probation in December. She said she hopes she can be out before then under medical parole in hopes that she can get on a transplant list sooner.
"I really can't do anything from behind bars," she said.
Her application hasn't yet been decided, and Vail said every request will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
"It's a balancing act between trying to make sure a person receives proper care in a way that is cost effective," he said. "It's not a black-and-white decision. It all depends on the individual."
The early medical parole bill is House Bill 2194.