On any given day in Washington, there are approximately 36,000 people living behind bars. Racist policies and practices – from the war on drugs to three strikes laws to higher arrest rates and more severe sentencing for people of color – mean that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates in comparison to their White counterparts. The effects of mass incarceration are far reaching, negatively impacting children and families, communities, and the economy. And since people of color are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates, families and communities of color suffer the most.

Members and supporters of Washington’s justice reform coalition (among them Civil Survival, I Did the Time, and Freedom Project), at our 2020 Lobby Day in Olympia.

Life after incarceration is difficult as people struggle to obtain housing, employment, education, public benefits, and reunite with family. It is hard – if not nearly impossible – for people to be successful at re-entering society and becoming contributing members of their community. In Washington, recidivism rates (the tendency for someone with a criminal background to re-offend) for men are as high as 30% and as high as 20% for women. We believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and that people impacted by the criminal justice system should have the supports and skills necessary to build fulfilling lives.

Deep Disproportionalities Apparent Across the State

Map of Washington state showing the different counties in varying levels of shades of red.

Click the image to view full-size. Map author: Matthew Jackson

Due to heavy societal stigma and scarcity of adequate supports, people with felony convictions often struggle to find stable housing and employment once they are released from prison. Although formerly incarcerated individuals throughout the state face difficulty rebuilding their lives, there are some Washington counties where re-entry may be harder than it is in others. This map highlights the counties where formerly incarcerated individuals face the highest levels of unemployment, and homelessness rates (light red being lowest levels while dark red being highest levels). Counties are ranked by a composite number that accounts for incarceration rates, homelessness, and unemployment.

What We’re Doing About It

Poverty Action supports policies that provide opportunities for people to reclaim their lives, support their families, and participate in their communities after serving their sentences.

  • The Clean Slate Act – Last year we worked in coalition with other justice reform advocates to pass the New Hope Act (information in below video), which improves the process of obtaining Certificates of Discharge, expands the types of convictions that are eligible to be vacated from criminal records, and makes the process of vacating convictions easier and more accessible. This year, we are building off this success to pass the Clean Slate Act, a bill that would create automatic record clearing once a person fulfills their requirements to the state and remains crime-free for a set period of time.
Cathy shared her story about her experience with the criminal justice system and how the New Hope Act would positively impact her life.