End Mass Incarceration in Washington Prisons

Washington’s prison population has increased sevenfold since the late 1970s.

I was shocked when I first learned how racism is embedded in the American criminal justice system.

I and others were participating in an Episcopal church program examining systemic racism. We learned about the horrors of forced prison labor in the Jim Crow South, where white sheriffs and prosecutors used vagrancy laws to pack prisons with young Black males rented out as slave labor for industry.

We also learned how the race-motivated anti-crime and anti-drug laws of the 1980s and 90s, affected supposedly progressive states like Washington. In fact, Washington was the first state to enact “three strikes” laws and an early leader in mandating long prison sentences without parole.

Washington’s prison population has increased sevenfold since the late 1970s.

Today there are more persons serving life sentences in Washington’s prisons than the total prison population in 1970.

Although Black Americans constitute only 4.5 percent of Washington’s population, they account for 18 percent of its prison population and 28 percent of those sentenced to life in prison. We wondered what can be done to help dismantle mass incarceration.

The good news is that two professional associations of lawyers — the Washington Defender Association and the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — are working vigorously on this problem.

The goal of their “End Mass Incarceration Project” is to persuade state legislators to revise sentencing laws used to warehouse so many of our citizens. Legislators are hesitant to act until they are pressured to do so by their constituents.

Here are five powerful reasons to support the End Mass Incarceration Project. The current mandatory sentencing laws reflect implicit and systemic racism. The 1980s sentencing laws emerge from the urban conditions created by slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the redlining of housing that prevented Black people from receiving guaranteed home loans following World War II.

Rather than addressing the problems of urban poverty, low-quality schools, and the loss of blue-collar jobs, our nation began building more prisons.

Long sentences do not make us safer

Many people fear that shortening sentences would put dangerous criminals back on the streets. However, evidence suggests that offenders age out of crime as they get older. (Bureau of Justice Statistics show that homicide and drug-arrest rates peak at age 19.)

Young offenders — often incarcerated following a dispute that turned violent in an environment of gangs, drugs, and guns — become different persons by age 40.

Numerous studies show that lengthy prison terms do not deter crime or lower recidivism rates. Moreover, many incarcerated persons were not imprisoned for crimes of violence.

Long sentences are devastating to those incarcerated, their families, and communities

Our current system dehumanizes the incarcerated, provides inadequate life-skill training or other rehabilitative services, and offers few incentives for turning one’s life around.

Children suffer when their parents are incarcerated, especially young boys whose fathers are taken away. Prison life is dangerous for incarcerated persons physically, mentally, and spiritually. Our wide use of solitary confinement is considered torture by most societies.

When finally released, ex-prisoners struggle to become integrated into society with reduced chances of finding employment or housing.

Revising sentencing laws will jump-start other prison reforms

Revising sentencing laws will support and accelerate other aspects of prison reform such as improving conditions of confinement, reducing the use of solitary confinement, emphasizing education and treatment programs, and providing reentry services to reduce recidivism.

Long sentences are tremendously expensive

The taxpayer cost of incarcerating prisoners for long sentences is staggering. By 2017, Washington state was spending 1 billion dollars per year on state prisons.

The money saved from reduced prison costs could be transferred to programs focused on rehabilitation, restorative justice, and alternatives to confinement.

Many islanders are looking for “what to do next” after the Black Lives Matter posters have been taken down and the memory of the George Floyd marches has slowly faded.

We suggest that a next step is to write or call our legislators to support prison reform. The issue is not simply racial justice but also seeing the humanity of all incarcerated persons, most of whom are themselves victims of violence and trauma.

If readers would like to learn more about the End Mass Incarceration Project, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit is sponsoring a 90-minute Zoom webinar presented by attorney Larry Jefferson, Executive Director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense, and attorney David Trieweiler, director of the End Mass Incarceration Project for the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The online webinar will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22. To register and request a Zoom link, email WDA@defensenet.org, writing“Race and Criminal Justice” in the subject line.

John C. Bean is a Vashon resident since 1986. He is a retired professor of English at Seattle University and the secretary of the Vashon Island Rotary Club.