As the DOC is significantly increasing the population at the reformatory, I distinctly recall their attorney telling the state Supreme Court how they were in the process of reducing that same population to mitigate potential COVID exposure. Even as I heard this, I had serious doubts about the sincerity of that promise. Here we are, about three months later, and it appears the plan being implemented is the polar opposite of what they assured the court.

This is business as usual for the DOC. Yet, in this particular case, their options are limited. They do not have the authority to just release people from their facilities, no matter how suitable they might be for such consideration. Those who do have the authority to make that call are politicians, and they are all pandering for your vote in the upcoming election. This simple fact informs every decision they make regarding the needed reduction in prison population.

The move that is safe politically is to release the dope people. Even though nearly every one of them will quickly return to crime whenever they are released, early or otherwise. The fact they can now wear masks everywhere they go might even help extend their ensuing crime sprees a little longer.

It’s too bad we can’t return to the old system. Washington operated on a parole system for several decades. That system would have provided the DOC the ability to handle this crisis responsibly without increasing the crime rate in your neighborhood.

The system was based on ‘the model penal code,’ which was adopted by most states at one point. It was designed by the American Law Institute, a nonpartisan collection of experts in the field of criminal justice. The basic idea of these laws was to assign a statutory maximum term for each category of crime. This was the upper limit of the amount of time a person convicted of a particular crime could serve. The judge would then sentence that person to a term at or near that figure.

The amount of time the person actually served was decided some time later by the parole board. This was a panel of experts who would scrutinize each case to determine if that person had sufficiently rehabilitated themselves so as to pose a low risk of future criminal behavior. While the best candidates for parole typically were not the dope fiends, that didn’t impede the board’s decision-making ability. They were appointed, not elected, thus somewhat immune from the political process. At the very least, they were not pandering for votes.

The beauty of this system was the way it enabled government officials to manage their finite prison beds. If a crisis occurred, such as a riot for example, and they had a need of prison beds, the parole board could easily identify people who could safely be released to free up space for those who clearly needed to be put in prison.

The major problem with this system was never the system itself but rather actors within the system operating it irresponsibly. Lest you surmise that these operator errors were simply mistakes, let’s look at one.

Charles Campbell was a violent rapist. When they finally caught him and sent him to prison, he vowed he would one day kill his most recent victim. When Campbell got to prison, he quickly figured out a way to manipulate the system. He became an informant, helping guards catch other prisoners’ misbehavior. After a few years of this, there were prison administrators who were somewhat beholden to Campbell for all his help. While there are a number of ways they could have expressed their appreciation for Campbell’s duplicity, the easy way to reward him was to clean up his file and support his bid for parole.

They did that very thing and soon Campbell was on his way to work release. A short time later he absconded, then murdered the woman he’d vowed to kill, her daughter, and their neighbor. In the aftermath, this was portrayed as an indictment against the parole system. That false narrative has been used to mischaracterize the parole system for nearly four decades now.

The reality, however, is that this was not a failure of the parole system. It was actors within that system misusing it in a patently corrupt manner. This false narrative emerged as a way to deflect responsibility from those guilty of this impropriety. The sad part is that this tactic was actually successful.

Had the members of the parole board been properly informed about Campbell, there is little chance he’d have even been considered at all. He never did anything in prison to earn such consideration.

So when the COVID crisis blows up in the prison system, like it’s doing right now in eastern Washington, just know that this crisis, as well as nearly every other major problem in the system, could be dealt with far more effectively and economically if we just repealed the Sentencing Reform Act and returned to the system that worked: the parole system.

– Tim