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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Considers Private Investment Bonds To Address Social Problems

A view of Rikers Island in New York, United States from the air. LaGuardia Airport can be seen in the background.

Someday in the not too distant future social service programs in the Northwest could get funding from Wall Street.

The idea is gaining traction across the nation. Goldman Sachs already funds pre-school slots in Utah and a youth intervention program in New York.

A proposal to pilot “pay-for-success” bonds in Washington got a hearing Monday before a legislative committee.

Wall Street and Rikers Island, home of New York City’s jail, are worlds apart. But in 2012 Goldman Sachs invested nearly $10 million in a program to reduce the number of teenage offenders who leave Rikers only to reoffend and return to jail.

The deal is: if recidivism drops by at least 10 percent, Goldman recoups its investment. Do better than that and Goldman reaps a profit. Fail and the investors lose money.

It’s too early to gauge results. But now, Washington State Representative Hans Zeiger wants to see if so-called social investment bonds could pay off here.

“It’s an innovative way that you can engage the private sector in solving big public problems, typically with a preventative aspect to them such as homelessness prevention, recidivism reduction, disease prevention.”

Zeiger, a Republican, has introduced a bipartisan proposal to pilot pay-for-performance bonds in Washington starting in 2016. The idea has also been floated in Oregon.

Supporters of social investment bonds say private dollars could help fill the gap when the state is struggling to fund human service programs.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."