Long and Life Sentences Contributing to Mass Incarceration
Over-incarceration in Washington State
There are currently too many long and life sentences imposed and being served in Washington State, contributing to the proliferation of over-incarceration.
The increased imposition of long and life sentences has caused growth in the jail and prison population over time, despite decreases in crime rates, and is an ineffective mechanism for producing public safety.
Longer lengths of stay for incarcerated individuals increases the overall incarcerated population, exacerbates existing social inequities in the administration of criminal justice, and incurs significant costs to the state without adequately deterring crime.
Increased Consequence of Prosecutorial Discretion
The narrowing of judicial discretion over the imposition and length of prison sentences in Washington State is a direct result of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act (SRA), the establishment of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the construction of the 1982 felony sentencing “grid,” and the abolition of the state parole system for individuals incarcerated after the SRA.
Because of the virtual abolition of the parole system in Washington state, prisoners are largely unable to reduce the length of their confinement from the determination at the time of their sentencing. These developments resulted in an increased consequence of prosecutorial discretion on length of confinement for the convicted, contributing to a growing and aging incarcerated population in the state of Washington (Cooper).
The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) reduced court discretion over the imposition and length of prison sentences in Washington State. The establishment of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission and subsequent determinate sentencing framework reduced judicial discretion and placed a significant amount of discretionary power within the legislature (“Sentencing”).
The state legislature abolished parole for those sentenced after the SRA, effectively communicating a reversal in the previous belief in rehabilitation and that “the Parole Board rather than the sentencing judge was in the best position to determine when a prisoner was safe to release” (Beckett). Because of the virtual abolition of the parole system in Washington State, prisoners are largely unable to reduce their length of confinement from the determination at the time of their sentencing. These developments resulted in an increased consequence of prosecutorial charges on length of confinement for the convicted (Cooper).
Increased Incarceration Despite Decreases in Crime Rates
There are only seven countries in the world with higher incarceration rates than the state of Washington (Beckett). Sentencing is thus the most accurate indicator of the length of incarceration, and increasingly frequent impositions of long and life sentences in Washington State have shifted the average length of stay upward over time. In the years from 2007 to 2017, the average sentence length for felony convictions increased 12% despite decreases in crime rates (Cooper).
There is a significant cost associated with increased incarceration rates. According to a report for ACLU of Washington on how long and life sentences contribute to mass incarceration in the state, Professor Katherine Beckett and Heather D. Evans state that, “spending on corrections more than tripled between 1985 and 2017. In 2017, Washington spent more than $1 billion (5 percent) of its general funds on corrections.”
Spending is not only presently high, but because of a continuing trend of imposing long and life sentences, there will be a need for Washington state to expand its presently overcapacity prison system. This expenditure could be upward of $500 million in construction and operations to accommodate prison population growth (Cooper).
The foremost measure of effectiveness for the any solution or policy option is the degree to which they positively combat the growth in incarceration rates as a result of the imposition of long and life sentences in Washington State.
The most effective policy option will produce and forecast the greatest decline in the number of people serving long and life sentences.
Each proposed policy option, to different degrees, provides an opportunity to effectively combat the policy problem which is first measured in the total population serving long and life sentences, followed by associated costs of incarceration and programming, and is then reviewed for its impact on recidivism as well as racial equity in the administration of criminal justice (Cooper).
Incarcerated and/or supervised populations
State legislatures and Committees on criminal justice
Advocacy organizations such as the ACLU
Sentencing review boards
Substance abuse rehabilitation centers
Early childhood, K-12, and post-secondary educational institutions
Vocational training institutions
Victim services organizations
The population of incarcerated individuals in the Washington State criminal justice system
Policy Option 1: Implement a Universal Post-Conviction Review Process
One of the principal factors to the problem of mass incarceration in Washington state is the determinate sentencing framework that exists in the administration of criminal justice due to an effective elimination of the parole system. Direct government in the form of post-conviction review will allow offenders to be assessed on the viability of their release, considering time served rather than the original crime. This will inherently provide more opportunities to decrease the expansion of the incarcerated population in the state, and directly addresses the fundamental rigidity of the original sentencing reform legislation.
Currently, the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board (ISRB) has jurisdiction over only three types of cases:
Persons who committed crimes prior to July 1, 1984, and were sentenced to prison
Persons who committed certain sex offenses on or after September 1, 2001
Persons who committed crimes prior to their 18th birthday and were sentenced as adults
Opportunities to be considered for release are extremely limited for Washington state inmates. For this reason, parole review ought to be expanded by the ISRB to include all prisoners who have served a certain number of years incarcerated. Expanding the number of eligible inmates in Washington State will be the first and most accessible measure of effectiveness. Subsequently, it is feasible that a larger pool of individuals eligible for review will result in the early release of more prisoners, greatly relieving the burden of overcapacity in the Washington State carceral system, which will alleviate the associated issues of cost and, to some extent, fairness.
Expanding the Jurisdiction of the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board (ISRB) utilizes existing administrative infrastructure which makes the implementation of this policy option feasible as far as the political process allows. The Washington State Legislature passed the Second Chance Bill (SB 5064) in 2014, granting a right to petition the ISRB for early release after serving twenty years of confinement to prisoners sentenced before their eighteenth birthday. Legislators will be able to modify and expand this legislation to reflect accepted science regarding brain development and older prisoners’ low recidivism rates (Cooper).
Policy Option 2: Lift Restrictions to Prisoners’ Capacity to Earn Early Release Time
Almost all prisoners were eligible to earn up to one-third of their sentence off through good time credits when the Sentence Reform Act was first enacted. This is no longer the case, and many incarcerated individuals are unable to earn time off at all. Reverting to the original capacity of prisoners to earn up to one-third of their time off, or expanding the capacity for all prisoners to earn up to one-half of their confinement time off will communicate the prioritization of rehabilitation in Washington State prisons, signaling a necessary ideological shift away from the punitive mechanics that lead to mass incarceration.
Analyzing the savings incurred by investing in rehabilitative and educational programming to replace longer impositions of confinement is necessary for the Washington State Legislature to make an informed decision regarding its priorities in decreasing the growth rate of incarceration in the state.
One important disadvantage to offering programming for earning early release time instead of original sentence review is that long and life sentences for many prisoners, even if cut in half, will still result in virtual life sentences. For instance, an inmate serving a 100-year sentence at thirty years of age who earned 50 years of good time credits will essentially be sentenced to a lifetime of confinement. Therefore, sentence review offers more certain relief of overcrowding due to long sentences than does the prospect of earning good time credits (Cooper).
Policy Option 3: Comprehensive Sentencing Reform
The Washington State Legislature currently utilizes the felony sentencing “grid” offered by the Sentencing Guidelines Commission to assess offender scores and determine the length of confinement through a calculus of offense severity and habitual offender statutes. This procedure limits judicial discretion in assessing risk and public safety in the sentencing recommendation. Placing limits on maximum sentences and reversing the cumulative effect of prior convictions is direct government action that will allow policymakers to emphasize rehabilitation over retribution and create more space for rehabilitative programming expenditure.
Redirecting corrections expenditure within the Washington State General Fund will allow for more investment in preventative and rehabilitative programs designed to decrease carceral contact and recidivism. Comprehensive sentencing reform thus allows for an investment opportunity in the following criminal justice reform measures:
Substance abuse treatment
Early childhood, K-12, and post-secondary education
Victim services for survivors
Overhauling sentencing policy is subject to the political process and attempts to prospectively reform factors leading to mass incarceration. For this reason, it is expected that the incarcerated population will decrease slowly. Long and life sentences will have to be served and front-end solutions will only address the future imposition of sentences that contribute to mass incarceration. Therefore, these front-end measures will be most effective in addressing mass incarceration when implemented in conjunction with back-end measures such as sentence review and early release time (Cooper).
Katherine Beckett & Heather D. Evans, About Time: How Long and Life Sentences Fuel Mass Incarceration in Washington State, A Report for the ACLU of Washington
'Sentencing Reform Act: A Historical Background,' Washington State Sentencing Guideline Commission
Julian Cooper, Long and Life Sentences Contributing to Mass Incarceration