By Christopher Blackwell / For The Herald
Although the covid-19 pandemic has brought increased attention to overcrowded prisons, mass incarceration has long been a topic of discussion in the United States and will continue to be a controversial topic after the pandemic is finally under control. Still, little, if anything, has been done to decrease the ever-growing prison population in most state and federal prisons, especially in the state of Washington.
According to a recently released report by ACLU of Washington, “About Time: How Long and Life Sentences Fuel Mass Incarceration in Washington State,” Washington has become a leader in providing exceptionally long prison sentences that offer little to no relief to those who enter its prisons, creating a black hole.
In 1984, Washington state’s Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) was designed to bring consistency and equality to sentencing by essentially abolishing parole in the state of Washington and enacting things like mandatory sentencing schemes and weapon enhancements. In reality the SRA has done neither and, in fact, it has caused great harm to prisoners, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and society at large. Indeed, the data available since the SRA was enacted shows it has done the opposite of what lawmakers claimed it would do. Racial discrimination still exists in the vastly unbalanced sentences handed out. For example, in Washington Black people constitute around 4 percent of the total population, but 18 percent of the prison population is Black. Additionally, 38 percent of those serving mandatory sentences of life without parole are Black and 27 percent of people serving extra time on mandatory weapon enhancement sentences are Black.
Almost 40 years since its enactment, the SRA has shown us that rigid and excessive sentences do very little to make our communities safer, and it does nothing to foster healing for victims and their loved ones. To bring the change the community needs we must look more deeply into what led a community member to cause harm in the first place. We need to look at the environment in which they were raised, the power structure within their household, the age they committed their crime, and what harm they have suffered throughout their lifetime that may have contributed to them causing harm to another.
Understanding that “hurt people hurt people” would allow us to target the roots of the underlying social and developmental causes of crime. I am not saying people who commit crimes are not responsible for their actions or choices. I am saying that purely punitive sentences don’t account for or address the totality of the situation, and they do nothing to prevent harm from happening in the first place.
Sentencing that does not consider a person’s ability to change serves no one, not the victims or their loved ones, society, or those who caused said harm. Dropping the rehabilitation focus of sentencing, as the SRA did, is more than just a disservice to those who commit crimes, but to society as a whole.
All prisoners should be able to seek out rehabilitative programs, ones that allow them to develop the tools needed to change past inclinations, develop new thought processes, and develop productive leadership skills. The focus of these areas would help to build confidence and self-esteem, opening up a path for individuals to love, respect and care for themselves. Once a person fully realizes their own humanity, it becomes hard to hurt yourself, let alone anyone else; rendering crime a thing of the past.
Why is a rehabilitative approach important? Over 90 percent of the individuals convicted of a violent crime will re-enter our communities whether the public wants them to or not. This is a reality we must come to terms with, and we must be willing to invest in those who are incarcerated, for their sake and the sake of the community. We need to make sure the prison system is releasing reformed citizens, not just warehousing prisoners until an arbitrary release date created through the SRA.
It’s time to do away with the racist reactionary sentencing scheme of the SRA and bring back parole. We need to empower a review board of trusted, respected and properly educated individuals to assess all prisoners and gauge their level of rehabilitation and maturation over time. If they no longer pose a threat to society, allow them to reintegrate back into it. It’s irresponsible and costly to continue to imprison someone who has rehabilitated and or aged out of crime.
Establishing structured independent sentence reviews would bring more than relief to the already overcrowded prisons, it would bring accountability to everyone involved with the criminal justice system; including those who commit crimes. It would promote the changes to prisons needed to make them places where people can become better, not worse, versions of themselves.
One place to start is with individuals who were given life and long sentences as young people. The SRA with its mandatory sentencing scheme fails to take into account the brain science for those who commit violent crimes in their teens and early twenties. As recent evidence shows, the adolescent brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. Studies show that people, even late into their adolescence, are more impulsive, more sensitive to immediate gratification, more heavily influenced by peers and other outside influences, and less aware of the consequences of their actions. Rather than demonstrating irreparable corruption, their crimes reflect transient, immature recklessness.
Yet, knowing this science exists, we continue to incarcerate thousands of people with incredibly long sentences for committing crimes during their youth. The Washington State Supreme Court recently ruled, based on this knowledge, that it is cruel and unusual punishment to mandatorily give 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds life without parole sentences. Based on this decision, one can only assume that more and more of the SRA’s rigid and mandatory sentencing laws will be struck down as cruel and unusual, yet our Legislature does not act.
Other developed countries (Germany and Norway) have such reviews and or processes put in place to humanize the individuals they incarcerate as a result, prisoners who leave their system easily reintegrate back into society much more smoothly. These countries never lose sight that the individuals who fill their prisons are also members of their communities; not just trash to be disregarded.
So, we have to ask ourselves, do we want a system that does little to nothing to rehabilitate prisoners before they are just tossed back out into the community? Or do we want an effective prison system that fosters change for those who reenter society? Reform for the time it takes, or warehousing for an arbitrary number of years? It may be easier to just throw people away who have caused grievous harm upon our communities. It is more difficult, however it’s vastly more rewarding to help develop a person and ensure their actions won’t be repeated. We need a fundamental change in our system of corrections, if we can even call it corrections and we need it now.
The SRA was a mistake, it’s time to cut our losses and reinvest in our community members.
Tax dollars spent unnecessarily warehousing prisoners for decades could help communities rebuild and fund the gaps they struggle to currently support, like education or reducing homelessness. These are the areas where tax dollars will best serve society.
Christopher Blackwell is a writer incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex for convictions of murder and robbery. He is to be released in 2045. He has written previously for The Marshall Project, Buzzfeed News, The Washington Post and The Herald. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWBlackwell.