The need for criminal justice reform has never been more hidden from plain sight as it is now, and much of the evidence is illustrated in Washington state. With a hardening of sentencing laws and fewer avenues for early release for good behavior or parole, the state’s steadily rising prison population is locked up with nowhere to go.
This trend mirrors our nation’s reliance on mass incarceration and long sentencing as punishment, offering individuals few opportunities for re-entry to society and providing little support for rehabilitation. The effect of mass incarceration on communities of color can also be felt for generations. Today, the United States incarcerates more people per capita and in absolute numbers than any other country in the world.
The human tragedy of mass incarceration
The ACLU of Washington released data from three decades of sentencing records that reveal that the increasing rates of long sentences are largely responsible for mass incarceration in the state. This comes in spite of a decrease of 31% in violent crime over the same time span.
Washington state now has 19,000 people behind bars. Although violent crime fell dramatically from 1986 to 2016, life or excessively long sentences went up during the same period by 175%.
With harsh sentences that offer individuals few ways out of the prison system, prisons in Washington state are facing a growing elderly population. Beyond the practical considerations that call into question the staggering financial burden that this imposes, there are the moral implications of warehousing human life with no effort at rehabilitating individuals for reintegration into society.
The necessity of prison reform
The Smart Justice campaign of the ACLU of Washington has advocated for fairer sentencing and more effective efforts to allow individuals who have done their time to return to society. Not only will this reduce prison populations, but will strengthen communities that have been gutted by the imposition of long sentences, especially on young people.
Racial disparities within the prison population highlight this problem, as the national rate of incarceration of African Americans is five time higher than that of whites. Research has shown that extreme sentencing does not deter crime or promote rehabilitation. As young people tend to “age out” of criminal behavior over time, shorter sentencing will offer opportunities for individuals who are released to promote respect for the rule of law within their communities.
Having passionate and committed criminal defense representation is essential for those individuals who are facing serious criminal charges or fighting long sentences. It is important to know your rights and defend yourself if you are charged with a crime.