This article was first published in The News Tribune. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.
Last year, after repeated examples of state violence across the country and the storm of protest it sparked, Washington State lawmakers loudly touted their resolve to address racial disparity — particularly in the criminal legal system. All things pointed to it being a year when legislation would be driven by data, not fear. Yet the main proposal, which would alter earned time (sometimes called “good time”) on prison sentences, failed to pass. And there’s no talk of bringing it up again. People across the state are left scratching their heads: what happened to concern over disparity?
Many felt it was the perfect storm of purpose and urgency for reforming the criminal legal system.
In February 2020, University of Washington sociologist Katherine Beckett released a report with the ACLU showing that state sentencing practices had greatly elevated racial disparities in incarceration over the last 40 years. Looking at recent numbers, only 3% of the state’s population identified as Black, yet a staggering 19% of people sentenced to prison were Black — a rate nearly six times that of Whites. The report made clear what many had chosen not to see: racial disparity was present and glaring right here in true-blue, progressive Washington.
Fixing this disparity became many lawmakers’ overriding purpose.
Then came urgency. In late 2020, COVID-19 began raging through our prisons, shining a spotlight on their overcrowded and unhealthy conditions. Finally there was an impetus to get many people who no longer posed a threat back into the community.
This mix of purpose and urgency coalesced when Tara Simmons, a former prisoner and newly elected state representative, released a one-size-fits-most solution — SHB 1282 — which would restore available earned time to its original one-third level. Simmons recounted how the Washington Sentencing Reform Act, adopted in the 1980s, originally allowed prisoners to be released early by earning up to one-third off of all portions of their sentence. Yet intervening laws added mandatory-minimum terms and sentence enhancements while simultaneously removing most opportunities for earning time off. As a result, many prisoners today can earn only up to one-tenth off certain portions of their sentence, and none on the rest.
These practices, all initiated during the “tough on crime” obsession of the ‘90s, have left Black and Brown defendants targeted with longer sentences and lower levels of earned time, driving racial disparity. Simmons’s bill would reverse some of these practices and reduce the black prison population from 19% to 11%, according to the DOC Executive Policy Office’s “Increased Earned Time Scenarios” report. Not a perfect solution, but surely a step in the right direction.
Then two hiccups came along. First, the Washington Supreme Court struck down a drug possession law that outlined conditions for the release or resentencing of many people. And second, the state received COVID-19 relief funds from Congress. Suddenly, lawmakers were “too busy” replacing the drug-possession law and no longer worried about budget deficits. All appetite for SHB 1282 had vanished.
Since neither the court’s decision nor the COVID-19 relief did anything to mitigate racial disparity, many expected our lawmakers to pick back up with SHB 1282 for the 2022 session.
That hasn’t happened.
Simmons has abandoned her one-size-fits-most approach and turned instead to something better characterized as “one size fits one.” She’s now trying with House Bill 1692 to retroactively remove an aggravating factor from the first-degree murder law — one that mandated a life-without-parole sentence for drive-by shooting.
The thousands of people expecting comprehensive sentence reform are no longer wondering what happened to concern over racial disparity: they know lawmakers have resorted to the old standby — just ignore it.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.