Harsh prison sentences swell ranks of lifers and raise questions about fairness, study finds

Stricter state sentencing laws in Washington have swelled the ranks of inmates serving life sentences to nearly one in five.

And some lifers who opted to go to trial are serving much longer sentences than others who committed the same crimes and plea-bargained — raising questions about equitable treatment of prisoners.

Those are among the findings in a new analysis by undergraduate honors students in the University of Washington’s Law, Societies & Justice program, who sought to determine the number of lifers in Washington prisons, the legal processes that lead to life sentences and the cost of housing those inmates, many of whom will die behind bars.

Washington largely eliminated its parole system after the state’s Sentencing Reform Act was enacted in 1984. The SRA was intended to increase consistency in sentencing and shift the goal of sentencing from rehabilitation, which research at the time indicated did not reduce crime, to punishment.

“At the time, the conventional wisdom was that rehabilitation didn’t work, and that parole boards were making arbitrary decisions,” said Katherine Beckett, a professor in the Law, Societies & Justice program and the Department of Sociology, who oversaw the students’ research.

The upshot of the SRA was that except for a few categories of inmates — juveniles, certain sex offenders sentenced to life and prisoners sentenced before the law was enacted — most prisoners would never go before a review board, have their sentences reconsidered or have a chance at early release. Ever.

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By Deborah Bach 7/7/2015