Sentencing Reform through Budget Crisis: Washington State Passes Early Release Bill 5/2/03

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Even as the US prison population edged over the two-million mark last year, driven by two decades of harsh anti-crime legislation and drug war hysteria, bleak economic realities at statehouses across the country have begun exerting a significant counter-pressure. With state budgets in the worst shape since the Great Depression, more and more states are finding they simply cannot afford to imprison ever-increasing numbers of their citizens. Last week, Washington State became the latest to begin to reverse harsh sentencing policies because the treasury is empty.

Legislators there passed Senate Bill 5990, an act that will increase the speed with which certain categories of offenders can win early release. Under the bill, backed by Gov. Gary Locke (D) and passed by overwhelming margins in both chambers, almost a thousand Washington state prisoners, including many drug offenders, will walk out of prison early, and more inmates will get out more quickly in the future.

The state had already passed sentencing reform legislation last year, set to go into effect in 2004, but SB 5990 moves that change up a year.

"It's the budget," said Roger Goodman, director of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project and a key player in an innovative reform effort that has drawn state and local health and legal professional groups into an increasingly successful effort to reform the state's drug laws. "We were in on various meetings, but getting this bill passed didn't require a lot of coalition-building or frantic testimony," he told DRCNet. "We have one of the worst budget deficits in the country. With anti-tax sentiment running high here, all the governor could do was propose cuts, and the Republican-controlled Senate cheerfully endorsed his prison proposal."

The state will save about $34 million next year alone by enacting SB 5990, according to state legislative analysts, and more than 900 current prisoners will walk free early.

The bill's features include:

  • An increase in earned early release eligibility from 33% to 50% of time sentenced for all current prisoners convicted of nonviolent, non-sex offenses who have no history of violent or sex offenses -- mostly drug offenders and property offenders. The increase does not apply to prisoners convicted of domestic violence, residential burglary, meth manufacture or drug sales to minors, nor to prisoners considered "high risk" despite the nature of their charges.
  • An increase in earned early release eligibility from 33% to 50% of time sentenced for those convicted after July 1 of nonviolent, non-sex offenses who have no history of violent or sex offenses. The same eligibility restrictions as above apply.
  • A decrease in earned early release eligibility from 15% to 10% of time sentenced for all serious violent offenses and sex offenses.
  • Moving up the effective date of the new drug sentencing grid up by one year, to July 1, 2003, so there will be vastly expanded judicial discretion and more treatment-oriented sentencing for drug offenses committed on or after that date.
  • A funding increase for the Criminal Justice Treatment Fund, for court-supervised drug treatment at the county level -- in other words, drug courts. Funds will rise from $8.25 million last year to $8.9 million this year.
  • A study of the effects of these changes on the recidivism rate, to be conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy and completed by 2008.
  • A sunset provision set for 2010.
"What this means is that fewer big drug offenders will go to prison; more will go to jail. And fewer low-level drug offenders will go to jail; more will go to treatment," said Goodman. "Judges will have more flexibility to order treatment and other services instead of confinement."

Goodman acknowledged that leaving drug treatment within the criminal justice system, as the drug court system does, is not the most desirable outcome, but counseled pragmatic patience. "Reform is always two steps forward, one step back," he said, "but now this whole idea of treatment over incarceration has been mainstreamed. It's no longer radical. The next step is government regulation of drugs instead of government regulation of human behavior. That's much more radical."

While legislators may not be ready to embrace radical notions of personal autonomy, evidence from across the country suggests they are now desperately searching for some means to reduce their grossly swollen prison budgets. And while moves such as reducing inmate programs or facilities can marginally reduce costs, the one proven way to do so is to reduce the number of people in prison.

And the states are acting. In the last two years, Indiana and Louisiana have repealed some of their stiffer sentencing laws for drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses, while Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts have shut down prisons. Kentucky released several hundred prisoners early, and when scandal forced an end to that program, state officials there changed parole standards to release prisoners earlier. Texas officials have ordered parole officers to reduce the number of returned parole violators. And sentencing commissions from Kansas and Oklahoma to Alabama and South Carolina have recommended or will recommend sentencing changes to reduce prison populations. In all of these cases, nonviolent drug offenders are or will be prime benefactors.

As shown last week in Washington State, the fiscal crisis of the states presents opportunities for reformers who couldn't get legislators' attention when appealing for social justice. Severe fiscal distress appears to be a remedy for drug war incarceration mania. Rock-ribbed conservatives who could listen to a hundred drug war POW horror stories without batting an eye can become reform allies when their wallets are at stake.

For SB 5990's final bill report and complete text, visit: and

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Issue #285, 5/2/03 Editorial: Much to Emulate from Abroad | Senator Nolin Comes to Washington | Cannabis Canada: Decrim on the Way, Says Prime Minister -- The People are Ready, Says Poll | Vancouver: Unsanctioned Safe Injection Site Opens in Midst of Police Crackdown on Downtown Eastside Hard Drug Scene | Peruvian Coca Growers Move from Joy to Anger as Meeting with President Yields FALSE Accord | Sentencing Reform through Budget Crisis: Washington State Passes Early Release Bill | Drug Czar Escapes Prosecution for Election Law Violations in Nevada | Newsbrief: Scottish Police Call for Drug Law Reform | Newsbrief: Oregon House Passes Bill to Restrict Medical Marijuana, Action Pending in Senate | Newsbrief: Friend of Drug Reform Upsets Veteran in Detroit City Council Race | Newsbrief: Utah Marijuana Case against Dennis Peron Crumbles | Newsbrief: Missouri Court Challenges Meth Arrest for Cold Pills | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Web Scan: CSDP, Policy Review, High Point Enterprise | Job Opportunity: Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, DC | Fellowship Opportunity: Ira Glasser Racial Justice Fellowship Program, American Civil Liberties Union | The Reformer's Calendar

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