With exploding national incarceration rates since the 1980s, some groups in Washington state are pushing for criminal justice reform.
The U.S. has more prisoners incarcerated both by sheer number of inmates and per 100,000 people than any country in the world.
In a 2013 study by the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. was found to have had some 716 people locked up per 100,000 people.
Even more staggering, the U.S. has only around 5 percent of the population, but roughly one-quarter of all inmates worldwide.
Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased by nearly 800 percent.
“At this point, I think a lot of people agree, even across the aisle, that we may have gone too far,” said Mark Cooke with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Others see problems in the way Washington handles criminal justice, such as Democratic state Sen. Roger Goodman, who said he will try to create a task force on criminal justice reform this year.
Goodman said the task force he hopes to create will look at how to reduce recidivism and focus on rehabilitation to avoid prison expenses for people who aren’t a threat to the community.
He said he’s particularly focused on youthful offenders between the ages of 16 and 24.
“We don’t want to ruin their lives but we don’t want to jeopardize public safety, either, by treating it lightly,” Goodman said.
Some ways to better handle young offenders could include creating more alternatives to jail and prison, including a wider range of sentencing options and diversion programs.
Additionally, Gov. Jay Inslee hopes to create a commission on behavioral health and the criminal justice system to deal with the problems outside of criminal courts and prison, Goodman said.
These could include screening for substance abuse and mental health problems at jails before suspects are booked, and have them diverted to other places like crisis stabilization centers or psychiatric facilities.
“We need to decriminalize mental illness, we need to decriminalize substance use disorders, but too many of the people who are suffering are ending up in jail,” Goodman said.
While there are no specific financial commitments in place, there could be some placed on the 2019-2021 budget.
While Washington state ranks 39th in incarceration rates nationwide according to federal 2013 figures, people were still incarcerated at a rate of 425 per 100,000.
Cooke said there are myriad factors that contributed to an explosion of incarceration nationwide.
These include the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act in 1981, which ties the hands of judges to provide more lenient sentences if the situation warrants it.
“Their hands can sort of become tied by those determinate sentencing policies,” he said.
Minimum sentences and three-strikes laws have also led to a surge in people being kept in prisons for longer periods of time.
The War on Drugs was intensified under the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, leading to crowded jails and prisons.
According to the ACLU website, there are more than 3,200 people in the U.S. serving life sentences without parole for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes.
On the War on Drugs, a name applied broadly to substance prohibition and enforcement in the U.S., Cooke said government should re-examine how it treats people struggling with drug addiction.
“Issues of drug abuse should be primarily treated as public health issues and not criminal justice issues,” he said.
Cooke gave the example of Portugal, which decriminalized possession of all drugs and replaced it with a civil system, which helps people recover instead of relying on the criminal justice system.
Criminalizing every behavior isn’t good public policy, he said.
“I think there is absolutely a will to be pragmatic about drug policy,” Cooke said.
The War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color and the poor, Goodman said.
Providing a more robust public services network is another component of reducing crime and recidivism.
Expanding services can help with not only drug use, but also crimes associated with mental illness and homelessness while taking pressure off law enforcement.
“Very often, law enforcement becomes the only state response available,” he said.
Goodman said part of the solution should include fixing “front end” issues in society, like reducing the opportunity gap in employment and education.
One way Goodman has proposed to address this is expanding preschool options to promote better educational outcomes.
Another small change that could reduce the number of court cases and criminal charges would be to decriminalize driving with a suspended license in the third degree.
It is the most common criminal charge in the state, Cooke said, and decriminalizing it would have some big benefits such as keeping people out of jail.
“There must be other civil alternatives that could work there instead of criminalizing something,” he said. “I think they are all choices that taxpayers and lawmakers need to make in what we are going to invest our tax dollars in.”
But restructuring the criminal justice system goes beyond financial implications, Goodman said.
The main issues are the systemic disparity of impacts that disproportionately harm people of color and the poor, as well as a high national prison population.
“We incarcerate a disproportionate number of our citizens,” compared to the rest of the world, Goodman said.
Finally, the issue of police bias and discretion are a factor that must be examined, Goodman said.
Washington voters will have a chance to weigh in on Initiative 940 on the 2018 ballot, which would make prosecuting police suspected of unjust killings easier.
Under current state law, the prosecution must essentially prove that a police officer who kills someone in the line of duty did so with malice, an unreasonably high bar that essentially bars prosecution, Goodman said.
“We shouldn’t have to prove that a police officer has malice against someone,” he said.
I-940 collected enough signatures to go before the Legislature this session, where they can either enact it or propose an alternative measure, in which case both the initial initiative and the proposed substitute will appear before voters.
It would mandate more expansive training for police on how to handle tense situations.
“This is really about police training and new generations of law enforcement, that they’re not warriors on the street trying to stop bad guys, but instead they’re guardians of our democracy and operate with a sense of fairness,” Goodman said. “So this is a generational change in law enforcement that is under way.”
Goodman wasn’t optimistic there would be a consensus reached on the initiative in the Legislature, meaning it will likely appear as it is written on November’s ballot.
According to the Washington Post police shooting tracker, there were 38 people killed by police in Washington state in 2017.