The politics of criminal justice

In politics, nothing is easier to demagogue than criminal justice. It’s a tangle of code words, of Willie Horton-isms and hang-‘em-high harangues.

While lawmakers understand that Washington’s ballooning corrections budget needs to be trimmed, how can they maneuver it in a palatable way, especially when substantive criminal justice reforms require more dinero, not less?

There may be a road map that doubles as political cover. On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order to create a bipartisan “Justice Reinvestment Task Force” to oversee a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice system. Much of the work is provided by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, partnering with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

It’s not an original model. Twenty-seven states have launched similar “reinvestment” initiatives, with mixed results.

Note the subtext: The governor’s office reports that Washington’s corrections facilities operate at 2 percent over capacity and will grow by 9 percent between 2013 and 2023. That pencils to between $387 million and $481 million in construction and operating expenses.

Be careful what review model you wish for, however. One study concludes, “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, as it has come to operate, runs the danger of institutionalizing mass incarceration at current levels.”

Real reforms, from drug courts to gang prevention, are pricey over the short term, but offer a long-term return on taxpayer investment.

The governor’s task force is an opportunity to sidestep past mistakes and explore efforts that demonstrate common sense, such as nixing prior drug convictions when determining “offender scores.” Tweaking score calculations that inform sentencing would reduce prison admissions in King County by around 8 percent. It’s an idea that has been noodled by University of Washington Prof. Katherine Beckett and was referenced last fall by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg at a meeting of the Washington Sentencing Guidelines Commission. It should rank high on the task force’s options’ list.

So, too, the sensitive question of parole vs. life sentences. One in six Washington inmates is serving life. It’s a parole-free trend that drives the so-called “prison-industrial complex.”

Addressing crime and punishment is, for better or worse (mostly worse), defined by the political class. Now is the perfect time to revisit the question of how Washington applies justice, what is in the public interest, and who benefits.