Feb 26, 2024 - News

Washington's prison population is down 30% since 2017

Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

Washington's prison population ticked upward slightly from 2021 to 2022, but remained far below the peak levels seen five years earlier, per federal data.

Why it matters: State officials have worked in recent years to reverse the rise in incarceration that followed the Nixon-era "war on drugs" and tough-on-crime policies from the 1980s and 1990s.

By the numbers: The number of prisoners in Washington state grew 0.7% between 2021 and 2022, according to the latest Justice Department data.

  • Meanwhile, it fell nearly 30% between the peak year of 2017 and 2022.
  • 13,772 people were in state or federal prisons in Washington in 2022, per the DOJ's data, compared to 19,656 in the peak year of 2017.

Zoom in: Washington's number of prisoners has trended downward in recent years partly because of changes in how the state prosecutes drug offenses, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

  • In 2021, the state Supreme Court struck down Washington's law that made simple drug possession a felony, causing people with pending drug possession charges to be released from jails and their charges dismissed.
  • The Legislature responded by passing laws to make drug possession a non-felony offense, while steering people toward treatment instead of prison.

Flashback: More people were released from prison under a separate 2021 law that required Washington courts to resentence people who were serving life sentences for second-degree robbery.

  • That also contributed to the drop in prisoner numbers, per OFM.

​​Yes, but: Some Republicans have argued in recent years that Washington's criminal justice policies are too lax, which they allege has been a factor in rising crime and overdose deaths.

Change in prison populations, 2021 to 2022
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The big picture: The U.S. prison population rose 2.1% between 2021 and 2022, marking "the first increase in the combined state and federal prison population in almost a decade," a recent DOJ report found.

  • Prisoner numbers nationwide remain extremely high compared to what they were before the 1970s and 1980s, when the U.S. ramped up enforcement of anti-drug laws and began imposing longer prison sentences for a range of crimes.
  • As of Dec. 31, 2022, about 32% of the nationwide prison population was Black — more than double Black Americans' 13.6% share of the overall U.S. population.
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