Editorial: Washington Legislature Needs to Escape Traditional Thinking on Criminal Justice Policy

The Seattle Times

By the Seattle Times Editorial Board

Decades of runaway prison costs and an entrenched cycle of recidivism have forced a nationwide shift—particularly in states like Texas and Alabama—from a “tough-on-crime” era to data-driven “smart-on-crime” approaches.

Washington state has been a leader in this movement for more than decade, primarily in reforming its drug sentences, and should have continued to lead this year. Instead, legislative leaders retreated from an important prison reform at the end of the marathon session. Lawmakers were apparently so afraid of being labeled “soft on crime” that they failed to pass legislation that would’ve stopped legions of thieves being released from prison without any supervision.

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee engaged in a U.S. Department of Justice program, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, to address Washington’s astonishing property-crime rate — the highest in the nation. The Seattle area rate for property crime is more than double the Boston area’s.

A big reason, according to an analysis by the Council of State Governments, is an antiquated soup of state sentencing laws. Previous budget cuts allow some felons convicted of property crimes to avoid any ongoing supervision after release from jail — which is unique among the states. Yet others are kept in prison for some of the nation’s longest sentences, which adds pressure on Olympia to build a new $480 million prison.

To fix this, the Legislature should have restored the Great Recession-era cuts to supervision, using money saved by shortening some of the higher-end sentences. Local police departments also would have received money to target the smash-and-grab rings that are the bane of car owners across the state.

Overall, a smart, balanced approach. But in the end, the bill died in the Democratic-led House. Lawmakers from both parties failed to muster the political will to break out of traditional thinking on criminal justice policy.

Now the state is left with the same flawed policies that led to a top-in-the-nation property-crime rate — it’s at least another six months until the Legislature reconvenes. The Legislature should pick up the Justice Reinvestment Initiative effort next year and find the backbone to lead again.