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Harsh Sentencing Laws in Washington State to Blame for Growing Lifer Population, Says University Study

Though its forward thinking, beanie-clad baristas façade would suggest otherwise, the State of Washington has a sobering history of abandoning rehabilitative incarceration in favor of some of the most draconian sentencing laws in the country.

First, Washington enacted the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1984, a law that effectively eliminated the state’s parole system and pre-dated by a decade the Clinton crime bill of 1994 that kick started a virulent wave of so-called truth-in-sentencing laws in the country.

“At the time (of the SRA’s passage), the conventional wisdom was that rehabilitation didn’t work, and that parole boards were making arbitrary decisions”, said Katherine Beckett, a professor in the University of Washington’s Law, Societies and Justice program.

Nearly 10 years after lawmakers enacted the SRA, Washington’s voters approved the State’s first in the nation three strikes law of 1993, which mandated life without parole for offenders who committed three serious felonies.  And in 1995, voters approved the Hard Time for Armed Crime law, mandating sentence enhancements for crimes involving guns; enhancements that are often so sadistically harsh that some prisoners will never again see the free world because of their weapons charges alone.

Together, those three pieces of legislation “have created a significant population of (Washington State) prisoners that will never have the opportunity to have their status reviewed or to reintegrate into society”, according to an analysis of the State’s lifer population, written by Beckett’s undergraduate honors students and published in May 2015.

In analyzing data for all felony cases in Washington State between July 1985 and July 2013 which is a total of more than 600,000 such cases, the students found that nearly one in five state prisoners are serving life sentences, with or without the possibility of parole.  Of the 1,383 Washington prisoners serving a life without parole (LWOP) sentence, almost half are “de facto” lifers, as they are referred to in the analysis, meaning they have been sentenced to at least 470 months, as per the federal definition of a life sentence.

Certainly, the state’s voter approved tough on crime laws have swelled those numbers, with half of all LWOP prisoners serving time under the Persistent Offender Accountability Act (POAA), or three strikes law.  Meanwhile, nearly 20% of the de facto LWOP population which is a total of 128 prisoners at the time the analysis was published, are serving those sentences “solely due to weapons enhancements”, according to the UW report.

In fact, through their exhaustive research, the students identified a prisoner “who received over 1,000 months (or 83 years) from weapons enhancements alone”.

“While this case is an outlier”, the report says, “it demonstrates the harshness of weapons enhancements in sentencing”.

Additionally, the UW students found that, while African-Americans represent just 4% of Washington State’s population, they make up 28% of prisoners serving LWOP sentences.

And more than 30 years after the SRA’s passage, the cost to incarcerate a LWOP prisoner is now $2.4 million.  Before 1984, when thousands of prisoners were granted parole hearings annually, lasting an average of just 30 minutes each, LWOP sentences cost taxpayers an average of $767,895 per prisoner (adjusted for inflation).

The students’ analysis also found that statutes like the SRA, POAA and Hard Time for Armed Crime measure have emboldened prosecutors across the state to force defendants into longer sentences for less serious offenses.

Consequently, the UW analysis recommends that state legislators repeal both the POAA and Hard Time for Armed Crime laws.  Or, if not repeal, then “allowing judges to allow sentences flowing from weapons enhancements concurrently rather than consecutively may provide some relief”, the student authors write.

The analysis also recommends the reintegration of rehabilitative programs “before, during and after release that adequately prepare prisoners for the challenges of life beyond prison walls”.

“More generally”, the UW report concludes, “we recommend that Washington State reevaluate the “just desserts” punishment model embodied by the SRA.  This model limits judicial discretion, deprioritizes rehabilitation and mandates that judges disregard circumstances that may have played a key role in the motivation and actualization of crime”.

Sources:  “Life Without Parole Sentences in Washington State”, University of Washington Law, Societies and Justice Program, May 2015;

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