Criminal Justice Reform in Washington


As of 2016, Washington hit its peak prison population of more than 19,000 prisoners. Contributing to this prison population is high recidivism rates: One in three individuals returned to prison within three years according to a 2016 report. Washington leaders have since recognized the continued growth of the incarcerated population and have implemented a number of reforms to combat it.


Starting in 2016, lawmakers passed a bill that focuses on successful reentry following the completion of a sentence. This is an important step because unsuccessful entries into society result in a return to criminal behavior, increasing the risk of recidivism. Washington leaders addressed reentry with legislation that requires the destruction of juvenile court records of people 18 or older within 90 days after they have completed their required diversion, counsel agreements, and release agreements. This promotes an easier reentry into society, making it easier for these ex-offenders to find work. Employment drastically reduces the opportunity for recidivating by providing a way to make money without the need to return to criminal behavior. Many ex-offenders feel held back because of their record and this bill now makes it possible to erase criminal records of those who were arrested as juvenile offenders.

Furthering juvenile justice reform, Washington raised the age that juvenile offenders can be transferred to adult prisons in 2017. Prior to this act, juveniles who were tried in adult courts were transferred to adult prisons when they turned 21. With this Act, they can wait until they turn 25 before they must be transferred. This change is based on research that shows that youths who are transferred to adult prisons are more likely to re-offend after their release. Additionally, Washington passed legislation that diverts low-level juvenile offenders to community-based programs in 2018.

In 2019, Governor Jay Inslee (D) signed into a bill reforming the 1993 Three Strikes law, removing a low-level crime from Washington’s three-strikes conviction laws. However, the Three Strikes law does not apply retroactively, therefore leaving many whose crimes fall under the outlined crimes not counting toward the three strikes with uncommuted sentences.


As employment after incarceration helps reduce recidivism, Washington hopes that these reforms will raise six-month post-incarceration employment. Though no numbers have been released with the expected results of these reforms, they are projected to reduce not only the incarcerated population but also the recidivism rate. The next five to ten years should be a good indicator of how impactful these reforms are. Hopefully Washington will build on these reforms in the coming years to address prison conditions and sentencing laws, among other issues.

Identification of legislation should not be considered an endorsement of support of, or opposition to, such bills.