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Interrupting the prison re-entry cycle in Washington state

Interrupting the prison re-entry cycle in Washington state

Published: November 29, 2012

It’s rare when all the groups engaged in the criminal justice system—prosecutors, prisoners, guards, lawmakers, families, social workers, and more—seek common ground on fixing the system. It’s even rarer when they agree it’s time to interrupt the vicious cycle of re-entry into prison that impacts so many communities, especially communities of color.

That’s what’s happening in Seattle, where more than 170 people engaged in a series of five re-entry summits to craft recommendations, small and large, that can ease ex-prisoners’ transition back to society and interrupt  the cycle of recidivism.

The summits were organized by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg; Dustin Washington of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); and Mary Flowers, John Page, and Martin Friedman of The People’s Institute Northwest to find ways to assist people re-entering society and drive down recidivism rates.

Dustin and Dan cited data from the state of Washington showing that within three years, about 60 percent of those released today will have new convictions—and about half of all those imprisoned now have been there before.

Dustin brought state lawmakers, four ex-prisoners, county council members, the head of the state corrections department, employment and housing counselors, and family members of incarcerated people who were hosted by Satterberg’s office in the King County courthouse. The group developed recommendations to reduce both recidivism and racial disparities, and Seattle is the driver of both issues, Dustin says.

“County-wide, 10 percent of the population is African-American, [compared to] 40 percent of those incarcerated. Black youth represent 8 percent of the population, but 42 percent of those in the juvenile system. While they are inside they are not getting the kind of help they need, be it mental health counseling, classes to earn their GEDs, job skills, and so on,” Dustin says. “Then they’re released with $40 and a bus ticket with no job, no housing, no educational programs waiting. “  

Dan says, “I’ve been a prosecutor for 28 years, and I think that re-entry is the responsibility of the criminal justice system, and those statistics are shameful. It is our shame that we expect this. It should be a big deal to make this system more fair and battle the phenomenon of racial disparities.

“We must quit recycling people.”

Among the practical small preventive steps the group is working for is giving those released a state-issued identification card—“not one with inmate and number written all over it,” as is currently issued, the prosecutor says.

Another practical measure is coordinating among the state’s 39 counties to clear up outstanding warrants on other offenses while the prisoners are incarcerated. Finding educational aid, housing, and mental health counseling also are on the list of 30 plus recommendations.

The practicality of the recommendations impressed Steven Dozier, a former prisoner who works at a King County nonprofit showing young people now in the justice system ways to avoid the re-entry cycle. “I’ve been to a lot of events where people are talking about it, but it’s the first time where people who actually can effect change were in agreement on finding common ground to move forward,” he says.

The next steps involve refining the recommendations, organizing community forums, and developing an advocacy plan this spring to deliver to the new governor and legislature.

While the summits marked an excellent beginning, most agree with Steven, who says this campaign “is like a wave washing against the shore, we have to keep at it, to keep moving forward.”