Washington state's community supervision program is one area of the criminal justice system where those who enforce violations were allowed a fair amount of discretion.
Where one community supervision officer might count each and every missed check-in as a sanctionable violation, another might wait for three or four to build up before considering punishment, giving the offender the benefit of the doubt until a pattern of violations started to show itself.
That is no longer the case.
In 2012, a new law stripped officers of their discretion by requiring at least one to three days in jail for low-level violations such as missing a check-in appointment or failing a drug test. The new policies, known as Swift and Certain, also adjusted punishment to be more proportional to the violation. These policies, which went into effect in May 2012, had never before been implemented on a statewide level.
Researchers at Washington State University Institute for Criminal Justice analyzed the impact the new state law had on cost, public safety and recidivism. The resulting 73-page report analyzes data from about 5,000 offenders and includes focus group interviews with 79 officers and their supervisors and 56 offenders.
The conclusion: it's working.
"Recidivism is going down, and the rate of violations is going down," says Dr. Zachary Hamilton, Director of the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice. "Low-level violations decreased rapidly, the amount of serious violations and absconding rates are going down. All the signs we've identified indicate it's working."
Here's how the new policies work:
Low-level offenses are met with one-to-three days in jail. Under the old system sanctions started at 30 days minimum and ranged up to 120 days.
Corrections officers have to report every violation instead of exercising discretion and letting a few accumulate.
For each high-level violation, such as weapon possession or violation of a no-contact order, offenders can get a maximum of 30 days in jail.
Another significant change is that substance abuse is no longer treated as a punishment. Under the old system, some offenders were given a choice: jail or treatment.
"That was effectively being 'volun-told' to go to treatment," Hamilton says. "The concept changed to say we're no longer using treatment as a punishment."
The result was that fewer people went into treatment, but those who did stayed longer, he adds.
Now take a look at the numbers
-The odds of confinement went down by roughly 20 percent and the length of time in jail decreased by an average of 16 days for the first 12 months after offenders began supervision.
-With people spending less time in jail, the report estimates that for every dollar the state spent on Swift and Certain policies, it saved $16. "That's a huge amount when you consider the amount of people who go into supervision," Hamilton says. (Through March 2015, 16,788
people were on active community supervision in the state, including 1,715 in Spokane.)
-Because the low-level violations are met with jail time immediately, offenders are learning their lesson. The odds of offenders being convicted of another crime fell by 20 percent, as did offenders’ propensities for low-level violations. In other words, recidivism is down. Another benefit of shorter jail time for lesser violations is that people are better able to keep their jobs and housing than if they were locked away for 30 or more days, Hamilton says.
-The new policies also pointed out disparities in the system. Take, for example, an officer who holds onto several violations and files them all at once. A judge in an area with a lot of jail space available might sentence offenders for each violation, whereas a judge in an area with limited jail space might be more lenient.
"The disparities in terms of what you received for a sanction was pretty great depending on where you were received supervision," Hamilton says.