New Report: Rise of Extreme Sentences Drives Mass Incarceration in Washington

Analysis of three decades of sentencing records reveals stark consequences of policy shift

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
February 25, 2020 3:00 pm

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Today, the ACLU of Washington released a report, “About Time: How Life and Long Sentences Fuel Mass Incarceration in Washington.” University of Washington researchers Dr. Katherine Beckett and Dr. Heather Evans authored the report.

The report reveals that, despite plummeting crime rates, Washington is locking up more people than ever before. Using data from three decades of sentencing records in Washington, the report shows the rise of extremely long sentences—entire lifetimes behind bars—is largely to blame for mass incarceration in our state.

“The rise of extreme sentencing in Washington has occurred in sharp contradiction to all that we know about long sentences: that they do not deter crime or promote rehabilitation; that they do not benefit victims; and that for young people they are especially excessive, since research shows people tend to ‘age out’ of criminal behavior,” said Jaime Hawk, Legal Strategy Director, ACLU of Washington Campaign for Smart Justice.

The number of people in jails and prisons in the United States has increased dramatically over the past five decades. As a result, the U.S. incarcerates more people, both in absolute numbers and per capita, than any other nation in the world.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Since 1978, Washington’s imprisonment rate and the total incarceration rate have more than doubled
  • Sentences in Washington have gotten dramatically longer. From 1986 though 2016, the violent crime rate fell by 31 percent. By contrast, the rate at which long and life sentences were imposed increased by 175 percent
  • As a result of these factors, Washington faces a“silver tsunami” of incarcerated people, and the staggering financial and moral implications that come with it

The consequences of mass incarceration are not limited to individuals; they are experienced by families and communities, for generations to come. They are unfairly and disproportionately felt by African Americans, who are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people.

The ACLU of Washington has long advocated for programs that divert people from incarceration and aid re-entry for those who have served their time. Yet, such efforts are not nearly enough. Washington currently keeps 19,000 people behind bars.

The report includes stories of transformation from some of them.

“For these individuals, time is of the essence, and this research shows that the essence of the problem is time,” said ACLU-WA Executive Director Michele Storms. “We invite Washingtonians to take a long look at why and how mass incarceration came to exist in our state, and to join us in creating a future that is free of it.”

The report is a launching point for reforms that will lead to better systems and improved outcomes. It will start conversations with lawmakers and the public about the need for comprehensive sentencing reform to dismantle mass incarceration in Washington.

The report is available at

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