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After 20 years

Reform Priorities of Washington State prisoners

(Editor: I edited this article from an unsigned document written by Monroe prisoners, so I was told, and handed to me at a criminal justice conference in late-2003. Since 1981 Washington State legislation helped spawn federal guideline sentencing laws in 1984, in 2004 it's well past time for those most affected by prison sentences to offer insight and new direction after 20 years of practice in the State. Along with the lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of Justice by Peltier and Von Kahl (summarized here), the evidence suggests Washington State and the federal government should get busy overhauling their conflicted sentencing and release laws.)

After 20 years of harsh, mandatory sentencing for criminal convictions, the "ideal of rehabilitation" remains alive. It's alive within the majority of prisoners, and most would respond positively to opportunities to earn an early release.

Public opinion polls for years have recorded that the human impulse for betterment is still valued and upheld. Most taxpayers would still prefer to know that released prisoners have not been made worse by confinement-and that rehabilitation essentially means the released prisoner has earned the right through education, skill development, peer insistence and institutional approval to rejoin the greater community.

When the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) was enacted in 1981, Washington State criminal law turned from 'indeterminate' to 'determinate' sentencing. This was a monumental change in penology, and by 1984 was described and codified in similar federal sentencing-reform language as "the most dramatic change in sentencing law and practice in our Nation's history."

Under the 'indeterminate' model, the Board of Prison Terms (or Parole Board) had jurisdiction and would decide when the person would be paroled and under what circumstances parole could be revoked. A trial judge would usually recommend a minimum term, but the chief responsibilities after pronouncement of sentence rested with the Parole Board.

In 1986 the Board of Prison Terms was re-designated as the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB), assuming the responsibility of supervision, parole and revocation of those persons sentenced on felony convictions prior to July 1, 1984.

The Legislature contemplated phasing out the ISRB as more and more prisoners were sentenced under the SRA. In 1986 the Legislature agreed that ISRB would cease to exist on June 30, 1992, and that all the Board's powers, functions, and duties involving people sentenced under the 'indeterminate' sentencing scheme would be transferred to the Superior Courts of Washington State.

Under this plan the sentencing judge of the county from which the person had been convicted and sentenced would assume (or re-assume if you like) jurisdiction over the imprisoned individual. The Department of Corrections was to assist Superior Court judges in assuming responsibility for the offender. Later Legislative decisions, however, delayed the termination of ISRB until 1998.

The Legislature expected ISRB to consider statements from the sentencing judge, county prosecutor, victim and investigative law enforcement officials when re-sentencing all ISRB subjects under SRA standards. The plan of lawmakers was, by 1998 or soon thereafter, to place all Washington State prisoners under one sentencing guidebook.

The unification of decisionmaking has yet to occur, and what's revealed by this indecision are glaring differences in how sentence lengths are determined. Some of the failure to unify parole judgments under ISRB may be placed on its weak annual budget of $l million which is allocated only to oversee those prisoners convicted prior to July 1, 1984. More glaring disparities in the handling of prisoners' sentence lengths are these general examples of unfairness contrasting ISRB and SRA prisoners:

  • ISRB prisoners are scheduled for a hearing every several years before the Board to allow for pleas of release. This process is not applicable to SRA offenders because they are given 'determinate' release dates at sentencing, and therefore, there's no need for a Parole Board (ISRB, that is) hearing to determine release.
  • Penalties for rule violations are applied differently between ISRB and SRA prisoners. ISRB prisoners can be denied release on earliest possible parole-eligibility date during their parole hearing-therefore facing no earlier prospect for release until the Board's next scheduled review, which is every 2-5 years. Prisoners under SRA lose 0-30 days of 'good time' credits for the same rule-violation.
  • ISRB prisoners are sentenced to statutory maximum sentences, which gives the Board jurisdiction for an amount of time that, in many cases, virtually triples and quadruples the standard sentencing range for the same offense under the SRA guidelines. Two different sentences for identical crimes while the only difference is the year of conviction. Hence, the Legislature is still faced with the same set of seemingly intractable problems it had before.

If ISRB offenders were moved under the authority of SRA, and treated like every offender convicted after 1984, officials would quickly learn that many prisoners have already served the maximum time, measured by SRA guidelines - and would be or have been eligible for release. These are mostly older people who have been confined at least since 1984. This common sense observation ought to be adequate reason to release these older prisoners now, many of whom are overdue for release, and whose continued imprisonment cannot be justified by the state's budget overseers.

Create new Committee and Review Board to oversee all prisoners

The Washington State Department of Corrections employs panels, review boards, unit team committees and case management personnel - all monitoring and evaluating release plans. Many of these state employment groupings serve the same purpose, overlap in responsibilities, and thus become excessive layers of administration with power limited to managing huge caseloads of prisoners with scarce resources and few rehabilitation programs.

During budget crises and times of extreme overcrowding is when pressured policymakers begin seeking solutions to problems of sentencing and confinement. The extreme conditions of overly long confinement are killing us slowly, day by day, in every insidious way. We're overdue for fair treatment, and our urgency is real.

What's needed immediately by executive decision is an oversight committee - a Committee and Review Board. This group would have powers to oversee all prisoners. This Committee would be authorized to recommend release of low-risk prisoners who took advantage of education, skill development and socialization and, except for death row prisoners, could be ordered released.

Implementation would provide accountability and remedy for prosecutorial abuse. A singular Review Board would have power to reduce unnecessary prison overcrowding and so save taxpayers from costly imprisonment of low-risk prisoners (e.g., the elderly, disabled or very ill) and new prison construction.

The new Committee and Review Board would be authorized to review, using all available facts, and decide which prisoners have earned early release, pose no threat to anyone and are, thus, eligible for return to the outside community. Projected savings from planned early releases under the Review Board's authority might in short time stabilize the Department of Corrections' budget. Building public support for such a major shift in Corrections' planning means all of us, inside and outside prison walls, must be thinking of social betterment that benefits all of us.

The ISRB has an annual budget of $1 million. The Sentencing Guidelines Commission has an annual budget for 'truth in sentencing' projects and payment for additional public policy analysis. By creating, empowering and implementing the proposed Committee and Review Board, financial savings would be immediate. Continued success under Review Board authority would continue saving money because future expenses for prison construction would become unnecessary.

Impose new 'earned, early release' formula for long-term prisoners.

"Good time" is a management tool in penology that's been around a long time. In simple terms it means that days are reduced from the end of a prisoner's ordered sentence for serving days of "good behavior" from the start of the sentence. Until 1989, each prisoner in Washington State's Department of Corrections was required to serve a minimum of 2/3 of his term in institutional custody. The 1/3 remaining is called "good time," and at that calendar date means that a prisoner is then eligible for conditional release-if no "good time" is lost because of institutional rule violations or lack of formal preparation for release.

If you are sentenced to prison for 10 years, nothing you do of a positive nature can lower your "good time" release date of 8 years, 6 months. The current 15% off for good behavior is not "earned," as in working for some reward. It's a benchmark only, changeable only if you break a prison rule or refuse "to program." A prisoner might lose all of his/her statutory "good time" and thus serve the complete court-ordered sentence in secure institutions.

The general theory of earned, early release relies on the rehabilitative principle that most prisoners will try to cut short their time in prison by earning extra "good time" days beyond those now mandated by statute. Changes in state and federal law over the last 20 years under determinate-sentencing policies thwarted the idea that incentives for early release would motivate prisoners to follow the rules in custody, seek education and improve themselves.

A shift in attitude must turn public employees in corrections into servants who focus on helping imprisoned people successfully return to their families and communities. This implies a move away from discussions, legislation and policies relying on surveillance and punishment, to plans for a safer and just society.

There is much to be done. From communities in Washington State, and across the USA, must come cries for intimate involvement in decisions to release people from prison's close custody. All sentencing reforms must begin and end with community representation at a parole board's meetings.

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