Comment: Should the crime always determine the time?

In judging early release for prisoners, shouldn’t a low likelihood to reoffend be part of the formula?

By Christopher Blackwell / For The Herald

Recently it was reported that plans by the Washington state Department of Corrections to reduce its costs by 15 percent include several prison population reduction scenarios.

Nearly all of them make a distinction between violent and non-violent offenders, but none of them make a distinction between prisoners who are likely to recidivate and those who aren’t. This is a common tactic in political circles, which allows politicians to pay lip service to reform and put the public at ease, but does little to actually protect public safety or reduce mass incarceration.

Recent prisoner release strategies in the wake of covid-19 are an example of this misguided approach. Gov. Jay Inslee passed over prisoners who have won unanimous recommendations of clemency for their extraordinary merit based on good behavior and demonstrated rehabilitation — as well as many thousands of prisoners with low risks of recidivism who have served decades of their sentences — to instead release young, chemically dependent, active criminals who had not been incarcerated for violent offenses. Many non-violent offenders released in this way were rearrested within months, some for violent crimes.

The covid-era release strategy is a product of what the conversations around prison and sentencing reform get wrong. The widespread belief that people who have once committed a violent crime are especially likely to do so again has no basis in empirical fact. Indeed, people paroled from murder convictions have exceptionally low recidivism rates; far lower than most other crimes. Many people convicted of serious violent crimes — either under extraordinary circumstances or when they were young — have subsequently transformed their lives. They have matured into very different people. Such prisoners pose far less risk to public safety than young, chemically dependent, active criminals who have received short sentences for non-violent and/or drug crimes who have not had the time or access to rehabilitation programs and who’s criminal activity may well be peaking.

Washington One — the Department of Corrections very own specially commissioned, expensive risk-prediction tool — confirms that many who have committed violent crimes are far less likely to recidivate when compared to many of those whom state legislators mistakenly consider the safer bet.

I am not advocating for a contest between who should and shouldn’t be given a second chance. All who enter our prison system need an opportunity for redemption. Nor am I advocating that people convicted of violent crimes shouldn’t go to prison. But when determining sentences and who is deserving of early release, we should be relying on the science and data that supports who is ready to reintegrate into society, not emotion and rhetoric.

Lawmakers, prosecutors, and enforcement communities have sold society the false narrative that long sentences would show we are tough on crime, which was expected to deter future crime, and therefore our communities would become safer. Nevertheless, no matter how tough on crime we got, and how long sentences got, crime continues to plague our communities.

Excessive sentences cost excessive amounts of money and serve no one. Not the victims, their loved ones, society, or those who have committed the crimes and caused harm. And longer sentences have not been shown to reduce crime. Tax dollars spent unnecessarily and inhumanely warehousing prisoners for decades could help communities rebuild and fund the gaps they struggle to currently support, such as education, drug prevention programs and reducing homelessness. These are the areas where tax dollars will best serve society and make all communities safer and more sound.

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 and The Washington Post. He last wrote for The Herald on Nov. 16. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWBlackwell.

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