As a result of the nationwide trend over the past several decades to get tough on crime, state and local governments have incarcerated ever-increasing numbers of people. Since 1990, the prison population in the state of Washington has more than tripled. Nationally, it has quadrupled since 1970.
A new study by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that mass incarceration in America has not reduced crime and has become “a source of injustice.”
Even worse, local governments such as Thurston County have found that incarceration is no longer economically sustainable. Criminal justice consumes 77 percent of the county’s general fund budget.
With population growth and inflation outpacing the county’s ability to increase revenues, the County Commission has faced the hard reality of choosing between public safety and other services to balance its budget.
To respond to these trends, the key players in Thurston’s criminal justice system — judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court administrators, law enforcement and commissioners — have been meeting regularly, for the first time, to identify and implement efficiencies and best practices, including alternatives to sending offenders to jail.
The collaboration has produced some innovative programs, such as requiring community service more frequently before sentencing non-violent offenders to jail, and making better use of home-monitoring technology. The group has also re-evaluated its entire pretrial services procedures.
On the strength of a federal court decision in Oregon, Sheriff John Snaza recently stopped keeping immigrants, who have completed their sentences, in jail at the request of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Thurston was one of the first counties to do so.
County prosecutors now utilize a swift-and-certain sanction model to impose shorter, but immediate, sentences for offenders who violate their terms of community supervision. And they say it’s having a greater effect on offenders’ behavior.
Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim said the goal is to use jail less as a punishment, and more to keep dangerous people off the streets. Or, as County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe describes it, not locking up “the people we’re mad at” and saving that jail space for “the people we’re afraid of.”
Thurston County’s efforts to reduce incarceration rates make more than economic sense, though that is an important driver. It’s also a social justice issue. America locks up five to 10 times as many people as a percentage of its population than other developed nations, a fact than disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.
It’s become obvious that we cannot afford to put everyone who commits a crime in jail, nor does it serve the best interests of public safety. The faster Thurston County and the state can move to reverse past trends the better.