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Overcrowded and Unfair

Overcrowded And Unfair

By Gary Parker

Human nature and society were not transformed when the SRA was implemented in 1984. The transformation was meant to occur in the basic philosophy of this state's justice system. The old system did not work. Some offenders were paroled too soon, others were imprisoned too long. The parole board was rarely able to see beyond their smudged glasses. Eventually people quit pretending the old system worked, and a new one was implemented to take its place.

The Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) was implemented on July 1, 1984. It was enacted to make the justice system more fair and equitable for offenders and for society. SRA prisoners (convicted after July 1, 1984) may argue about SRA's merits, however, pre-SRA prisoners do not argue as much. They are sullen and exhausted. They have argued for seven years through every conceivable avenue of appeal that they should be treated like post SRA offenders.

Two kinds of time coexist in Washington prisons. They appear to be identical on the surface, but they are fundamentally different. SRA prisoners do their time alongside old guideline prisoners. They coexist, but the time they do is radically different.

Old guideline offenders had their minimum term of incarceration determined by the parole board (now called the ISRB). SRA prisoners have their terms set by an elected Superior Court judge. Old guideline prisoners have little or no due process protection at parole board hearings. SRA felons have the complete due process afforded by the Superior Court. After inmates complete their minimum terms of confinement, the difference between old guideline and SRA prisoners becomes conspicuously clear.

Punishment is the stated goal of all SRA incarceration. Rehabilitation is the actual goal for old guideline offenders. The ISRB is required by law to be satisfied that an old guideline offender's rehabilitation is complete before they can grant parole. Recidivism rates for paroled prisoners would suggest, though, that a simple coin toss may be a more accurate predictor of rehabilitation than the parole board.

SRA inmates receive a certificate of discharge when they complete their minimum terms, and they may not be reincarcerated unless they are convicted of a new crime in court. Old guideline prisoners, however, must still have a parole plan approved. They must abide by the conditions of their parole. And they may be reincarcerated by a mere board hearing. The discharge date of the SRA prisoner is guaranteed - it is a goal that will be reached. The parole date of an old guideline prisoner may be changed wildly, unpredictably, and often irrationally. Because rehabilitation is poorly defined and highly subjective. Legal review of a board decision to deny parole is virtually nonexistent. Consequently, while SRA prisoners live in a certain world of crime and punishment, old guideline prisoners dwell in an uncertain world of undefined rehabilitation, wildly shifting parole dates, slipshod parole hearings, and absentee parole reviews.

Although the law requires that old guideline prisoners have their minimum terms set in accord with the SRA guideline ranges, hundreds upon hundreds of them have surpassed those terms and are still imprisoned. Some have been imprisoned continuously, and others have been paroled but subsequently had their parole revoked and been reimprisoned. They should all be discharged from custody. Period. Some of them may reoffend, but the same can be said for SRA prisoners who are discharged as well.

Old guideline prisoners should be given a certificate of discharge when they have completed their minimum terms. They are not being rehabilitated by the old lameduck parole system - they are being debilitated, disappointed, disillusioned, and unfairly incarcerated.

How can the State of Washington morally continue to demand that old guideline prisoners be "rehabilitated" when it has abandoned that demand for all SRA offenders?

Time is money. It is enormously more expensive to perpetuate the old pre-SRA system than it would be to abolish it. Hundreds upon hundreds of old guideline prisoners who have completed their SRA guideline minimum terms continue to occupy extremely costly prison space. The cost to society is doubled when you consider that the productivity of both the prisoners and prison staff are lost to society. The United States is a net importer of labor, yet this state needlessly incarcerates hundreds of potentially productive workers. It employs thousands of staff to manage them in prisons and supervise the thousands of old guideline parolees.

There are hidden costs to the needless incarceration and overcrowding of thousands of prisoners. Putting two prisoners in cells designed for one may save the state a few pennies, but it may cost society many pounds. Those are human beings being jammed together into tiny cells. They are forced to live in inhumanely close quarters. Nearly all prisoners will be released. It is there that the hidden costs may be revealed: more crime followed by more incarceration. It is a vicious cycle made more inevitable when prisoners are squeezed together in tiny cages for months or years.

Some of the trauma and injustices may be avoided by abolishing the old pre-SRA parole system. Granting a certificate of discharge to old guideline prisoners who have completed their SRA guideline minimum terms will ease some of the overcrowding, and eliminate some of the injustices currently built into the two-tiered system.

Other options may exist to reduce prison populations, but none are less expensive or more equitable than abolishing the remnants of the rehabilitation hoax.

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