Dear friends and neighbors,
Since Democrats regained the majority in the Washington State Senate in 2018, addressing systemic racial disparities in our criminal justice system and ending the era of mass incarceration have been high on our priority list. Over the last three years, we have worked to end the practice of locking up minors for non-criminal offenses, created a program to get incarcerated people transitioning into communities sooner, and expanded investments in proven diversion and treatment programs. In the 2021 session, we continued our work to improve public safety and strengthen our state’s justice system.
Supporting successful reentry
House Bill 1186 will create a new program to allow young people who are nearing the end of their confinement period in juvenile rehabilitation to serve out the remainder of their sentence in the community while on electronic monitoring. This bill also ensures that these young people have access to programs that will help them successfully re-enter society, such as behavioral health treatment, independent living, employment services and education.
Senate Bill 5121 expands on the graduated reentry program adopted in 2018. The program allows eligible people to serve the last several months of their sentences in the community under intensive supervision. Participants are given access to programming and treatment in the community to match their needs and are closely supervised by a corrections officer while under electronic home monitoring. Data available from the program show only 4 people out of 500 returning within a year on a new sentence – a recidivism rate of just 0.8%, compared to the 11.2% overall recidivism rate for people exiting DOC custody. An estimated 3,000 additional prisoners are eligible to enter the program in the next two years.
Community-based “step-down facilities” equip youth to live successfully by providing opportunities to connect with educational and job programs in the community, as well as access to health care (including behavioral health treatment) while remaining in a supportive setting where they learn skills to become self-sufficient. Senate Bill 5118 will help establish more step-down facilities in more communities to serve even greater numbers of youth by designating them as essential public facilities for zoning purposes.
Protecting constitutional rights
House Bill 1140 will require that juveniles have access to an attorney before police can question them or search their belongings. Right to counsel for youth is already offered in King County, ensuring that young people do not have to ask for a lawyer when they are in a confusing and frightening situation. This bill will expand the policy statewide to protect youth when many are not aware of their rights and are susceptible to intimidation or pressure to provide testimony against their own interest.
A chance for hope
In 1993, Washington became the first state to adopt a three-strikes law requiring sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole upon conviction of a third “most serious offense.” In 2019, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5288 to remove robbery in the second degree from the list of most serious offenses. As passed, however, that bill did not apply to people already serving three strikes sentences who have at least one strike conviction for robbery in the second degree. This year we passed Senate Bill 5164 to require courts to resentence these individuals now that robbery in the second degree is no longer a three-strikes offense, giving hope to an estimated 114 people serving life without parole.
Banning private prisons
House Bill 1090 will shutter Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center when its contract expires in 2025. The 1,575-bed facility is currently the only for-profit private prison in our state. By prohibiting persons, businesses, and state and local governments from operating or contracting with private detention facilities, the new law will effectively ban private for-profit prisons and detention centers from ever operating in Washington again.
Thanks for taking the time to read this update. While there is much more work to do, I’m proud Washington is leading the nation with a smart approach to public safety that is addressing systemic racial disparities while achieving historically low violent crime and incarceration rates.
If you missed my previous updates on this year’s legislative session, click here to get caught up on what the Legislature accomplished in civil rights, childcare, climate action, tax reform, worker protections, police accountability and housing.
Senator Jamie Pedersen