Washington State is currently in crisis mode over the premature release of approximately 3,000 prisoners due to a Department of Corrections computer glitch. But do the facts warrant the panic? Prematurely released prisoners are charged with causing two deaths, one a DUI vehicular homicide. If 3,000 prisoners were accidentally released, and two deaths have resulted, that is a 0.067% chance spread across thirteen years that an early release could result in a death—assuming we give any credence at all to the flawed logic that keeping two prisoners incarcerated a few months longer could have prevented their recidivism.
There is, in fact, no evidence that early release caused the recidivism. Yet supposedly thoughtful news outlets like NPR have covered this story in the same old inaccurate, fear-mongering way that keeps mass incarceration alive and well. Aside from a Seattle Times piece by Kamb and O’Sullivan, Washington media coverage has mostly failed to address the 99.933% of prematurely released prisoners who caused no deaths post-release. As state officials delight in the theatrics of damage control, wasting taxpayer money to re-incarcerate many prematurely released prisoners well on the path to reentering their communities, we have yet to spend taxpayer dollars on improved post-incarceration reentry programs, or on fulfilling our obligations to K-12 children under the McCleary decision.
Revenge for the sake of revenge is expensive, and does nothing to promote public safety or rehabilitation of prisoners. Tax dollars would serve Washingtonians better if applied to in-prison programs proven to reduce recidivism rates, such as prison higher education. Yet Washington’s criminal justice policies remain rooted in revenge lust, with little regard for actual statistics on recidivism or the effect of mass incarceration on communities of color. Washingtonians don’t want to see headlines that read, “Accidental Early Release Proves Cost Benefit of Releasing Prisoners Early” or “Accidental Early Release Yields No Discernable Difference in Recidivism Rates.” Such headlines don’t fit with our sensational mythos of fear.
This mentality prevents Washington from joining most other states across the nation in reinstating parole. Washington eliminated the parole process in 1984 as part of the Reagan era tough on crime fad. Most states have now realized the inefficacy of clemency boards as the sole pinhole release valve for state prison systems that feed bodies in by the thousands, yet Washington stubbornly clings to a failed criminal justice model.
If Washington officials want something real to flap their arms over, they might turn their attention to the cost of life without parole sentences in our state. The 2015 University of Washington Law, Society, and Justice report on LWOP sentences informs us that “each LWOP sentence will cost Washington State $51,193 each year for 30 years,” after which point a prisoner becomes elderly and “will cost Washington State $102,386 each year” for the remaining estimated nine years of in-prison lifespan. At the 2015 Concerned Lifers Organization Conference at Monroe Correctional Complex, prisoner Arthur Longworth gave a poignant talk on the “mass drownings” of life without parole sentences in Washington State, drawing attention to the human rights aspect of indefinite incarceration. LWOP is Washington’s other death sentence, and it’s expensive.
Inflamed emotional responses to scary-sounding news stories—as in the uproar over the now elderly Tim Pauley’s eligibility for release—keep Washington’s prisons packed with Three Strikers and elderly prisoners who pose miniscule, if any, risk to public safety. The 2015 Concerned Lifers Conference demonstrated this to the public with a parade of feeble elderly prisoners who could barely climb onto the stage.
Instead of attacking DOC head Dan Pacholke for the early release of prisoners, why not thank this computer glitch for revealing that early release results in no discernible difference at all? Washingtonians must learn to distinguish between media sensationalism and actual criminal justice facts if we want to stop tearing our communities apart and wasting tax dollars warehousing our loved ones in prisons.