We have a growing overpopulated prison problem in Washington. The U.S is the home to the largest prison population in the world, 22% of the world’s prison population, with an incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000 of the national population.(1) Washington state alone houses over 17,000 inmates daily (as of June 2018) with each prison operating over the population capacity. (2) When Washington moved away from a rehabilitation model by ending parole, the prison population swelled.
A study done by the University of Washington shows that there were three major factors that contributed to such an expansion in the state of Washington.(3) First, the abolishment of the parole board in Washington 1984 left the vast majority of individuals convicted after 1984 without an opportunity for conditional release before serving their full sentence. Second, the Three Strikes Law introduced in 1993 to combat violent crime and persistent criminal behavior extended to reach an exceedingly broad group of individuals, far broader than it was intended to. It mandated a punishment of Life Without Parole (LWOP) for anyone convicted for their third “most serious offense”, which included all class A felonies and other specified criminal conduct. (4) Unsurprisingly, this lead to an immediate and substantial increase in the LWOP population that occurred in subsequent years after the legislation passed, with the half the population of individuals sentenced to LWOP being “three strikers”. (3) Lastly, legislation that added weapon enhancement to felony sentences emerged in tandem with the Three Strikes Law. These enhancements made any felony which took place with a weapon require additional time served. Consequently, many individuals who would not have served LWOP were given de facto LWOP sentences due to weapon enhancement add ons. 40% of all LWOP and 61% of de facto LWOP cases include weapons enhancements.
Harsh sentencing penalties have resulted in the explosion of individuals serving LWOP or de facto LWOP sentences, effectively taking away discretion from judges and resulting in the excessive sentences that exist in the criminal justice system today. (3)
Aside from a moral basis for leniency, there is a practical basis as well: the significant financial burden of incarcerating people.
Average cost of incarcerating an individual
According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the average annual cost of housing an inmate sits at $36,691 as of 2016. (5)
Cost of incarcerating the elderly
The financial burden becomes even more significant when considering the elderly population in our prisons. 28% of the prison population in Washington consists of individuals over the age of 50 as of 2016. (6) The elderly population is far more expensive to care for. A report by the ACLU finds the average cost to house a person over the age of 50 is $68,270. (7)
Given the continuing increase in the prison population, especially the LWOP population, we must consider the sustainability and necessity of such policies in regards to public safety. If we don’t want to have unreasonably large prison budget at the cost of other necessary state functions, we must consider alternatives to the currently punitive nature of our criminal justice system.
“States can implement mechanisms to determine which aging prisoners pose little safety risk and can be released. Releasing many of these individuals will ease the burden on taxpayers and reunite prisoners with their families to care for them. While some of these prisoners may turn to the government for their healthcare or other needs, government expenditures on released aging prisoners will be far cheaper than the costs of incarcerating them. Based on statistical analyses of available data, this report estimates that releasing an aging prisoner will save states, on average, $66,294 per year per prisoner, including healthcare, other public benefits, parole, and any housing costs or tax revenue. Even on the low end, states will save at least $28,362 per year per released aging prisoner.” - ACLU Mass Incarceration of the Elderly report.
Clemency is the sole hope in Washington for most incarcerated individuals for early release. The stories and circumstances of each individual that petitions for Clemency can help to question the necessity of keeping so many individuals locked up. We at the Seattle Clemency Project hope and anticipate that we will see new alternatives and reform going forward.
There is a significant moral basis for leniency.
LWOP denies redemption and signals the idea that certain individuals are irredeemable and are to be given up on.
Clemency can also be a tool for alleviating some of the racial bias in our criminal justice system that affects so many people in our communities.
It is no longer disputable that there is an overrepresentation of the minority population in prisons. In Washington alone as of 1980, the population of black prisoners was nine times higher than the general population.
Things are better now, but the rate still lies at an unacceptable rate of four times higher than the general population as of 2013. In the past, some have argued that the disparate impact of incarceration on minorities exists because minorities commit a disproportionate amount of crimes. That theory has been disproved. Washington state has done extensive research and analysis on this issue and the studies indicate a substantial and systemic bias against people of color, including harsher sentences, harsher treatment, and greater legal financial obligations. (8)
Due to the we punitive focused method of incarceration in the US, it has created a vicious cycle that furthers the racial imbalance of the prison population. The elimination of second chances in the state of Washington only furthers the issue that we’re seeing today. Clemency is one alternative that can push the boundaries for greater criminal justice reform, and also bring justice in cases where an individual was judged to harshly because of their race or social position.
Walmsley, Roy. www.prisonstudies.org. World Prison Brief, 2015, www.prisonstudies.org, www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/world_prison_population_list_11th_edition_0.pdf.
Average Daily Population of Incarcerated Individuals. Department of Corrections Washington State, 2018, Average Daily Population of Incarcerated Individuals, www.doc.wa.gov/docs/publications/reports/400-RE002.pdf.
Blagg, Dakota, et al. Life Without Parole Sentences in Washington. Supervised by Katherine Beckett, 2015, pp. 1–71, Life Without Parole Sentences in Washington
FY2016 Cost Per Incarcerated Individual Per Day. Department of Corrections Washington State, 2017, FY2016 Cost Per Incarcerated Individual Per Day, www.doc.wa.gov/docs/publications/reports/200-AR001.pdf.
“Prison Facilities.” About Work Release | Washington State Department of Corrections, 2016, www.doc.wa.gov/corrections/incarceration/prisons/default.htm.
Chettiar, Inimai, et al. Mass Incarceration of the Elderly. Edited by Vanita Gupta, ACLU, 2012, pp. 1–98, Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.
Beckett, Katherine, et al. Preliminary Report on Race and Washington's Criminal Justice System. Research Working Group, 2012, Preliminary Report on Race and Washington's Criminal Justice System.