Needing to show Washington Gov. Jay Inslee how it could cut 15 percent from its budget, the state corrections department decided that “there must be a significant and permanent reduction in prison population.” The prison system appears ready to lead the type of changes supported for years by activists and some legislators to reduce long sentences and startling racial disproportionality, the Seattle Times reports. While the state’s incarceration rate has dipped nine percent over the last decade and is lower than the national average, it is still more than double what it was in 1980. Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair’s latest strategy would go further than ever, by recommending bills to minimize prison time for some nonviolent offenders, increase time off for good behavior and bringing back a version of parole, a highly controversial issue that pits the potential for redemption against demands for truth in sentencing.
The changes would shrink the prison population in the next fiscal year by about 30 percent. The turnabout reflects the way the year’s momentous events — COVID-19, its devastating effect on the economy and government budgets, and protests over racial injustice — have come together. The protests have put a spotlight on inequities in the criminal justice system. “I think this is a transformational moment in our overall movement,” said Tarra Simmons of the Civil Survival Project, which advocates for former inmates. Washington has been a leader in tough-on-crime policies, enacting the nation’s first three-strikes law. Now, a Criminal Sentencing Task Force is doing what co-chair State Rep. Roger Goodman describes as a “top-to-bottom” review of the system. In April, as inmates sued over danger from the novel coronavirus, the state Supreme Court ordered the corrections department to take “all necessary steps” to protect those in their custody. The state released 1,016 prisoners nearing the end of their sentences.