In 1984, Washington state was on the front edge of a national movement, pushed forward by federal grant dollars, which encouraged states to abandon parole and adopt a system of determinate and mandatory sentences. Since then, Washington state has not had parole. As a result, we’ve learned that issuing sentences without the possibility of parole has made reform irrelevant and has turned the state’s prisons into warehouses that do nothing to train individuals to return to society.
Instead of graduating rehabilitated and productive citizens, the principal function of prison now is to entomb the old and infirm, the handicapped and those with mental illness. Then there are the many prisoners, locked away when they were young, who have long since shed any trace of the behavior or thought process that led them to prison. And, for those prisoners who are able to make it to a release date, there is no check to determine whether they are safe to release. They are simply turned loose.
Before Washington changed its sentencing system, the parole board, composed of seasoned corrections experts, provided a vetting process to determine whether or not prisoners were suitable for parole. Prisoners found unsuitable weren’t released. But for most prisoners leaving prison today, there is no vetting process.
If the problem with the state’s sentencing system was confined only to one prison, then perhaps it might not be an issue that should concern the rest of society. But that isn’t the case. A sentencing system that offers no hope to prisoners and strips corrections officials of the mandate to rehabilitate also creates a cycle of institutional failure that supports the need to build more prisons.
The massive escalation of tax dollars and resources poured into the maintenance and expansion of prison over the past 30 years was diverted from other vital state institutions: the public school and university system, the mental health system, the foster care and child welfare system, public housing, employment security and vocational training, substance abuse treatment services and veterans’ services. It’s not a coincidence that the vast majority of individuals entering prison first fell through the torn net of one — if not more — of these institutions.
Ultimately, the question is how to define justice. What a society does to those it locks away in prison — how much hope it holds out to or withholds from them — has more to do with those who are outside prison than any of the people inside. If justice is the promulgation of unrelenting anger and an uncompromising belief in retribution at any cost, even the diminishment of others and the ever-increasing need to lock away more citizens, then we’re good — because we have that. On the other hand, if justice is an institution that reflects humanity and through which society is made better by reforming individuals — the kind of justice you would want if one or more of your family members were in prison —then society has to hold out the possibility of parole to those inside prison who are willing to work for it and demonstrate they deserve it.