Comment: State’s criminal justice system needs thorough reforms

Two bills would begin to restore the promise to rehabilitate people and not just warehouse them.

By Christopher Blackwell and Kevin Light-Roth / For The Herald

We live in a complicated society. The simplest event in our day-to-day lives depends on countless sophisticated institutions functioning flawlessly. But the modern individual is so accustomed to life in this intricate world that its complexity has become invisible. When buying a cup of coffee, social institutions are the last thing many people are contemplating. We may be thinking about our plans for the weekend, our upcoming day at work, or the countless people who depend on us like our kids, aging parents or community members. Meanwhile, international trade agreements must be in place for coffee beans to be imported to our country. Infrastructure has to be maintained so that those coffee beans can be transported to the espresso stand that serves us our morning cup. The cashier accepts an objectively worthless piece of paper as payment because our monetary system is functioning as we expect it too. Capitalism, social stratification, the culture of mercantilism—without these, there would be no barista to take an order and no espresso stand to begin with. Despite our constant reliance on them and our deep faith in their efficacy, our institutions are typically invisible to us.

It’s only when an institution falters that we notice it. Flipping a light switch, we don’t wonder whether the lights will turn on. Unconsciously, we believe all the institutions needed to run a power grid are operating in perfect order. When the lights turn on, it prompts no response—the institutions remain invisible. Flip the light switch and the room remains dark, suddenly an institution is front and center in our minds. The purported experts are fools. We are outraged. We expect the problem to be corrected right away. Our faith is shaken in a way that offends us. That is our reaction when institutions fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

In 2023, what is it that we trust the institution of the justice system to do? Is it satisfying our expectations? When that switch is flipped, do the lights turn on?

Many would say the justice system is broken. They would not be able to explain what has gone wrong technically, the same way they wouldn’t have a technical explanation for what’s gone wrong with a declining power grid. But when the lights won’t stop flickering, we know there’s a problem. The experts have come up short.

With the justice system, the lights have been flickering excessively for decades. The experts themselves have thrown up their hands. Pundits on both sides unanimously declare it to be in shambles. We’re told our institutions of justice are dysfunctional and continuing to crumble. They have not faltered, they have failed entirely, failed sensationally, failed beyond any hope of repair in their current forms. The systems have been broken so long, we expect nothing more than what they currently do—warehouse people while providing little to nothing towards their rehabilitation.

At this point, we don’t expect our justice system to produce desirable results. Quite the opposite. The expectation we now have is that our justice system will fail. We expect racism, extrajudicial killings by the police, cover ups, and incompetence. We expect those with the least power to be subjected to the harshest treatments. We expect dehumanizing conditions for the incarcerated, and the mass-scale squandering of human lives. When someone is released from prison, our expectation is that he or she will be worse off by virtue of experiencing prison, and will most likely be more dangerous than when they entered prison. We expect the person will struggle to find work, housing, and simply adjust to life in a world where they’ve been ostracized and labeled as an “other.” We have no expectation that our system facilitated their personal betterment.

Of course, no one would tolerate a power grid that consistently failed, especially not one that malfunctioned in a way that harmed people, again and again, for generations. We would demand that it be torn down and replaced with something new, something reliable, safe for those connected to it and utilizing up-to-date technology.

But how concerned would people in the dominant culture be about a failed power grid that seemed to only affect other people—impoverished communities of color? If the lights are working fine at my house, am I concerned about blackouts across town in a neighborhood where I don’t know anyone? More to the point, am I concerned with power grid failures that mostly impact people whose lives don’t intersect with mine in any immediately obvious way?

There is no doubt that people are being damaged by our justice system; people, families, and entire communities are, in fact, being destroyed. And the reality is, we are all connected. Mass incarceration touches all our lives through the social discord it yields and its enormous economic burden, to say nothing of the ethical burden each of us carries living in a nation whose carceral system has made it an international disgrace. Though America makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, our prisons hold 25% of the world’s prison population. Still, at first glance mass incarceration and its injustices appear to only be an issue for those folks across town.

In the final analysis, then, this is the question upon which the future of our justice system hinges: Do we care?

If our answer is no, then we don’t need to change a thing. If we don’t care about systematic racism, it doesn’t matter that Washington, where Black people makeup 4.5% of our population, maintains a prison population of 25% Black people, and that 1/3 of those receiving life or long sentences in Washington are Black. And that isn’t the only record Washington state holds, we also dole out life sentences at a rate 50% higher than the national average.

As a state, we allow children and young adults to fill our prisons at exceptional rates. We know that children and young adults are different, thanks to recent studies on adolescent brain development from some of our most prestigious institutions—Harvard University, Columbia University, and many others. These studies remind us that youth and young adults are impulsive, immature, and susceptible to peer pressure, all things we know will easily lead them into tragic situations. But if we, as a society, don’t care about redemption, if we’re unmoved by the human capacity for change and are indifferent to the fate of other people’s children, then it doesn’t matter that adolescents who end up in Washington’s prisons cannot present a case for their release after they’ve matured into grown adults. If we don’t care about having one of the most racially disproportionate justice systems in a country notorious for locking up People of Color, don’t care how many children and young adults are sentenced to grow old or to die in prison, don’t care that nearly all of Washington’s astonishingly high number of life sentences are handed down to the poor, don’t care that Washington is a decade behind the rest of the country when it comes to justice reform, then our system is a perfectly functioning machine, and we can continue feeding it the lives of poor, Black and Brown youth.

If we don’t care, then we already have the system we deserve.

But, if the answer is “yes, we do care,” then we must demand change.

We cannot say we desire an end to racial inequality on one hand and on the other hand tolerate institutions that perpetuate it. We cannot expect to have safer communities if we refuse to invest in rehabilitating those who enter the justice system. We can’t claim to believe in rehabilitation and at the same time deny those incarcerated as children and young adults an opportunity, through personal growth, maturation and hard work, a chance to reunite with their community. We cannot adopt the language of the moment, appropriating into our conversations trendy phrases about Black and Brown lives, while we allow a flagrantly unjust system to go on as it has for decades. We have to make a choice, and we have to act on it.

If our answer is “yes, we care and we want change,” there is very good news. This session, our state legislators will have two bills before them that can drastically improve our broken system. Emerging Adult Parole (Senate Bill 5451): This bill would allow prisoners incarcerated as adolescents—under the age of 25—to appear before a parole board after 15-20 years and present their case for conditional release. And the Retroactive Elimination of Juvenile Points (House Bill 1324): This bill retroactively prohibits using juvenile adjudications in adult offender score calculations, which often lead to people from impoverished communities to be given exceptionally longer sentences in adult courts.

Passing these two bills would achieve an enormous amount of progress toward racial justice and a more equitable system, a system that better reflects our values as a society. Much work will remain, but we will be on a track to correcting the broken system we’ve allowed to continue functioning for far too long.

There’s nothing we can do about the innumerable human lives irreparably damaged, the lives lost, the children raised without their mothers and fathers, or the profound harm mass incarceration has caused our communities. But we do have a rare chance, now, to effect positive change for our future.

Like a broken light, the issues we face through mass incarceration can be fixed. It is well within our power. Like all social institutions, the justice system is something humans have constructed from their collective imagination. It doesn’t exist in nature. There are no natural, scientific principles of justice. There are only the principles we create for ourselves.

Injustice is sustained by a society’s indifference as much as it is sustained by its perpetrators. Make no mistake — if we do nothing, we will be acting in the service of an institution that we know to be racist, abusive, oppressive, and blatantly unjust. It is the responsibility of people of conscience — people who do care — to be sure it changes.

We know nothing happens when we flip the light switch. The system hasn’t worked in a very long time. We might not understand exactly how complicated institutions work, but we can see the results plainly when one breaks down. And we know it won’t fix itself. It’s time to demand of the people in charge of maintaining the system that they begin the work of correcting what’s wrong to insist on a better outcome than just warehousing people. Because as long as we ignore the problem, we will remain in darkness.

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. He co-founded Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Huff Post, Insider and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.

Kevin Light-Roth, 39, is from Tacoma. He is currently incarcerated at a Washington prison, where he works to organize the prison community around legislative bills. He is a regular contributor to the Information For A Change legislative update page on Facebook.

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