WSBA CRIMINAL LAW SECTION
It is time to act on criminal justice re- form in our state. Crime rates continue to decline toward historical lows, yet our state prisons exceed capacity. We don’t use prison as much as other states — Washington ranks 42nd in the rate of incar- ceration — but that means the simpler reforms,
like putting fewer people in prison for drug crimes,
have already been done here. There is an urgent need
to take a broad view of criminal justice reform, if for no
other reason than to begin to rebuild trust between the
communities most impacted by crime and the system
that is intended to serve and protect them. We need
strategies that improve public safety, limit growth in
prison population, and bolster public confidence in the
fairness of our system of justice.
Here are 10 ways to begin criminal justice reform in Washington state.
1Graduate More Students from High School
Keeping kids in school is our best crime preven-
tion strategy. Three out of four Washington prison
inmates dropped out of high school; we know that
people who drop out are five times more likely to
go to prison in their lifetime. We should not accept
graduation rates that leave a quarter of our young
people without the protective power of a diploma.
School discipline policies that expel or suspend students from
classrooms to the streets without educational services must be reevaluated, and on-campus strategies must be funded as an alternative to expulsion. The school-to-prison pipeline is real. The adults in
the room can stop it.
2 Increase the Capacity of Our Mental Health System
Since 1955, America has lost 95% of its capacity to house and treat
people with mental health concerns. Today, Washington ranks near
the bottom in publicly funded psychiatric beds. The default system
for those with behavioral health issues is too often the criminal
justice system. We need to increase the capacity of our emergency
mental health services in Involuntary Treatment Courts, and forensic wards of our state hospitals.
King County has invested in a “Crisis Solutions Center,” an arrest diversion option for police encountering someone who has committed a minor offense due to mental illness. We need more of these
throughout the state.
The Legislature recently funded a “Competency Diversion” program that will allow prosecutors to divert matters to an assisted
community outpatient program, away from the courts and long waitlists at Western State Hospital. Competency is a legal standard, not
a medical condition. People with serious mental health issues have
more pressing needs than learning about the courtroom process,
which is the overall goal of competency restoration.
by Dan Satterberg