Washington State: Among the Highest in The Nation in the Use of Costly and Ineffective Life Sentences

According to a November, 2013 report by The Sentencing Project, Washington is one of only seven states where more than 15% of the prison population is sentenced to life. Nationally, the average is 9%. Nearly half of our Life Without Parole (LWOP) population is serving for non-homicide crimes. In this statistic, we trail only one state in the nation, Idaho. According to this study, our three strikes law is largely responsible for this trend.

Research demonstrates that life sentences are costly and ineffective. They focus expenditures on older inmates who have much higher healthcare costs and are unlikely to commit more crimes. They are often unjust.

They have also contributed to the continuing expansion of Washington's prison system during years of falling crime rates:

Between 2002 and 2012, Washington's resident population increased, while the reported number of crimes and arrests across the state decreased. During that time, Washington adopted many evidence-based programs and practices with the goal of reducing crime and moderating prison population growth. Despite these efforts, Washington's prison population spiked by 8 percent over the same period. An additional 9-percent increase is anticipated by 2023.
Washington State Justice Reinvestment Initiative factsheet on Council of State Governments Justice Center, accessed 8/23/14.


Clemency is Part of the Solution

Bills to remove lower-seriousness crimes from the 3-Strikes law have been introduced in Washington State's legislature every year since the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission recommended reform in 2001. In the meantime, the clemency process has provided some relief. With the support of King County's Prosecuting Attorney, Dan Satterberg, several clemency petitions of 3-Strikers with lower seriousness crimes have succeeded.

"Research shows lengthy sentences do nothing to improve public safety. But these long sentences are turning prisons into geriatric centers where the cost of care is prohibitively high. The practice of routinely locking up people forever - especially young people - also ignores the potential for rehabilitation. The whole trend is deeply counterproductive. States need to encourage more rational sentencing, restore the use of executive clemency, and bring parole back into the corrections process." Writing Off Lives September 9, 2013, New York Times.

Washington's 3-Strikes law "was passed by initiative 20 years ago after much public debate. Opponents said it was wrong to list second-degree robbery and second-degree assault, which were not worth a life sentence. They also said the law would result in a lot of geriatric prisoners confined at public expense. The critics were right on both counts." Seattle Times Editorial, 1/23/2013.