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The Continuing Racism Against Black Pre-SRA Offenders

By Leland Jordan

As most readers know, effective in July of 1984, the State of Washington moved from an indeterminate sentencing scheme to a determinate one. It did so in part on the basis of the conclusions reached by numerous studies of Washington's criminal justice system. These studies concluded that Blacks were in fact discriminated against at all levels of law enforcement, i.e., from arrest to courtroom, to consideration (or lack of consideration) for parole or for probation, to prison, and that once imprisoned, Black prisoners were serving more time for the same crimes as committed by Whites.

What this meant is that Blacks were the first to come to prison but the last to leave. That we were denied probation in instances where it was granted to Whites of similar status. That we were ten times more likely to be arrested, ten times more likely to be charged with a crime, and ten times more likely to be given a prison sentence, as a similarly situated White person. The studies concluded that the single reason for these disparities was racism.

The Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) effectively placed all prisoners, Black and White, who committed crimes after July 1, 1984, under a determinate sentencing scheme. This new sentencing scheme was enacted almost specifically to address the racism and favoritism which had come to epitomize the indeterminate sentencing system. The idea was that even if the racism and favoritism could not be stopped, equality of sentence could be guaranteed. Black prisoners under the new sentencing law, the SRA, do not [in theory] serve more time than other prisoners for the same or similar crimes. This is true in spite of the existence of antagonistic racial attitudes, the racial attacks, and the arbitrary and disproportionate disciplinary procedures that exists from top to bottom in the state's criminal justice system. The theory was that, because their sentences are predetermined by the courts and cannot be easily extended for circumstances encountered while serving the sentence itself, be they racial or otherwise, a greater degree of sentencing equality could be achieved. This single duality of the SRA clearly gave it the potential to treat the practical effects of this form of institutionalized racism.

The SRA's implementation in Washington state constituted a major step toward lifting the burden of racism off the shoulder of the Black prisoner. It is as significant to the Black prisoners as the application of the Bill of Rights was to the Civil Rights Movement, or as Brown v. Board of Education was to the struggle to end segregation in public schools. 

Let us now set aside current daily issues of racial discrimination and racial attacks for a time, so as to pursue the higher goal of having all Black prisoners placed under racial discrimination and racial attacks literally "go with the territory." Prison environments mirror the racial attitudes of the communities in which they exist. Monroe, Shelton, Walla Walla, and Clallam Bay (cities in Washington which have prisons) all have one thing in common. They are all essentially white, if not anti-Black communities. Racism stemming from this kind of environmental base is unfortunate but predictable. The concern of this writer is for the Black prisoners who remain under the antiquated indeterminate sentencing, and who stand to lose release dates due to racially motivated circumstances. Every time the racism inherent in one of these anti-Black communities manifest itself in the form of a racially motivated write-up, a racially motivated report of any kind, be it from a counselor or a boss, or as in many cases another prisoner, the Black prisoner stands out as a victim to have several more years added to his prison sentence.

If the SRA represents a form of medicine, a cure if you will for racism, then it seems to me that every Black prisoner in the state of Washington ought to be legally afforded the right to some of that medicine, regardless of the date on which he happened to commit his crime.

It is criminal that in spite of the legislature's intention to have this cancer eliminated, disparities caused by racial discrimination still exist in this criminal justice system for Black prisoners who remain under the indeterminate sentencing scheme.

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