A Groundbreaking Shift in Criminal Justice

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GavelYesterday, amid a very full day discussing gun safety measures, criminal background checks, public campaign financing and homeless encampments, the Council heard about a groundbreaking shift in the way Washington State supervises individuals recently released from prison. 

The simple premise behind the change is this: swift and certain sanctions are more effective in changing the behavior of offenders under community supervision than sporadic and more severe punishments. In other words, an immediate night or weekend in jail successfully reinforces the message that condition-of-release violations bring consequences; a longer sentence announced a month after a violation occurs feels arbitrary to the violator and is not an effective way to change behavior.

The seeds for this program were planted when the City Council brought UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman to Seattle in April of 2010 to talk about a new criminal justice approach being used in Hawaii called Project HOPE. Later in 2010, we reached out to the State Department of Corrections to try to model this program here in Seattle with individuals recently out of prison and under community supervision – a much higher risk group than the probationers involved in Project HOPE. The DOC was a willing partner, identified excellent field staff to run with the idea and launched the Washington Intensive Supervision Program (WISP) in 2011.

Participants were divided into the test program and control groups. The WISP cohort was tested more frequently and more randomly and had violations more immediately enforced with modest sanctions.

A rigorous evaluation of the pilot program at the one year mark by Pepperdine University Professor Angela Hawken shows it works.

WISP participants tested positive for drug use at less than one-fourth the rate of those in the control group (6% for WISP, 28% for control). More significant were the trend lines: WISP participants became less likely to test positive over the year as they learned they couldn’t get away with it, but those in the control group tested positively more often as time went on because they found they could get away with it.

Jail days at the one year mark were 8% higher for the WISP group but, more importantly, WISP participants had on average 63% fewer days in prison. This difference is understated in the data, Dr. Hawken explained. As prison sentences are a longer-term sanction than jail stays, that difference would likely be more pronounced if the data were analyzed an additional year later. In addition, the state has adjusted the sanctions under the WISP model so the number of days spent in jail has also gone down.

This Seattle program has also led to exciting changes in community supervision statewide.

What began as a pilot program covering 35 individuals under supervision in Seattle has expanded statewide to cover more than 13,000 offenders, Washington DOC Secretary Bernie Warner told the Council yesterday. As the new approach leads to reduced stays in jail and prison, the projected annual savings to the State is more than $30 million.

This program is a great example of how we do not have to accept business as usual in our criminal justice system. We can experiment and make changes that encourage a successful reentry to society for those leaving prison, save the system money and make our communities safer and more whole.