Transforming sentencing and reentry

Friday, January 12, 2024
A collage of photographic cut outs of trees, people, and advocacy symbols set against a yellow and white background

The “Home Safe” blog series asks a complicated question: how do we make our communities safer?  

We have spent the first few posts in this series exploring some of the problems inherent in our current criminal legal system. In order to propose effective solutions, we first must examine what we are doing now and why and how it is causing harm to our families, children and communities.  

Our first post focused on the school to prison pipeline and understanding how some of our most vulnerable kids end up in youth jails and prisons. This requires exploring the systems that criminalize students, especially in our public schools, like school resource officer programs and referrals to law enforcement. When school discipline issues become criminal legal issues, it can ensnare young people in a harmful system that impacts them long into their future.  

The second post looked at diversion programs, which despite their clear successes when used, have disparate implementation across Washington state. This means that one’s zip code largely determines whether a person is able to access diversion or whether they must go through the court system.  

We then dove into the importance of retroactivity in sentencing reform. It is fundamentally unfair to require people to serve vastly different sentences for the same offense. Meaningful sentencing reform requires us to reckon with the mistakes of the past while resolving to change the future for the better. Retroactivity does that by applying new legislation to people who have already been sentenced.  

Our fourth post discussed the importance of brain science and sentencing reform and how to align our criminal legal system with the best science available. Your brain continues to develop well into your 20s, and it is critical that courts take this into account, especially in regard to young people facing long sentences.  

Our most recent post emphasized the importance of community care and keeping children at home where they belong. When this does not happen, youth face harm from juvenile records that affect their ability to get homes and jobs, exorbitant legal fines, and more.  

Having looked at what’s wrong with the system, it is now time to turn to solutions and how we can all work to make our communities safer.  

The ACLU-WA works in a variety of ways to tackle issues of community health and safety – through community organizing, electoral work, in the courts, and in the legislature. For this post, we are focusing on two of ACLU-WA's legislative priorities which are aimed at transforming sentencing and reentry by reducing life and long sentences. 

Sentencing reform is directly connected to community health and safety. We build healthy communities by prioritizing the social determinants of health, which are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age. These include education, economic stability, health care, built environment, and community. Research has long confirmed the link between public health and crime, concluding that focusing on purely punitive approaches to criminal behavior ends up missing the mark entirely. Our approach to accountability should prioritize these same pillars of health, focusing on allowing individuals who are incarcerated to grow, change and eventually reintegrate into a society that supports their basic needs. Sentencing reform is deeply intertwined in this work.  

We cannot address concerns about public health and safety without also addressing issues of social justice and racial equity. 

Juvenile points 

In the 2023 session, the Legislature passed, and the Governor signed into law EHB 1324, which stopped the practice of automatically giving people longer sentences because of prior juvenile adjudications, while still maintaining the ability for judges to see and consider a person’s juvenile record in sentencing. This was a step forward in the fight against mass incarceration and racial bias in the criminal legal system for future generations. However, as enacted, EHB 1324 leaves the harms of the past unresolved by denying relief to those currently incarcerated.  

This year, a coalition that includes formerly and currently incarcerated allies is returning to Olympia to make this law retroactive and pass the juvenile points trailer bill, HB 2065 (Stearns)/SB 5971 (Kauffman). 

Emerging adults 

There is a growing national understanding that young adults need to be treated differently in the criminal legal system because their brains are still developing, especially in regard to long sentences. This legislative session, the ACLU-WA, in collaboration with partner organizations and currently and formerly incarcerated allies, is back in Olympia advocating for the passage of the Emerging Adults Bill, HB 1325 (Hackney)/SB 5451 (Frame), to address this issue.   

In Washington, we offer opportunities for sentencing review before the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board (ISRB) for juveniles given long sentences. This review mechanism was established in 2014 and has had astounding results. People who have been released are now in their communities and are giving back — running nonprofits, attending law school, and working in anti-violence initiatives. In recognition of this success and modern brain science, the emerging adults bill, HB 1325/SB 5451, would increase the age for sentence review consideration from 18 to 25.   

Get more information about these two bills and the rest of the ACLU-WA's legislative agenda here.