Washington’s Prison Population Plummets During COVID Pandemic

Washington’s prison population has dropped to levels not seen in nearly a generation. COVID is a major factor, but what’s not clear is whether the downward trend is here to stay.

Since the start of the pandemic, Washington has seen a 29 percent reduction in the number of people in the prison system. That decline outpaces all states except for New Jersey, according to a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative. A number of factors explain the drop. Some prisoners were released early when COVID hit, others got out after a recent change in drug laws. But the biggest factor is that fewer people are being sentenced to prison because of COVID’s impact on the courts.

Secretary of Corrections Cheryl Strange says it’s too soon to say if the decline is permanent. “I don’t think we know just yet. I think COVID is a wildcard and that’s going to come first and everything after that we’ll deal with.”

Washington’s 12 prisons have approximately 4-thousand empty beds. Some housing units are now being taken off-line, until and unless they’re needed again.

Washington’s prison population could fall even more in the months ahead. That’s because the Department of Corrections is about to implement an expanded early release program known as graduated re-entry. It allows qualified individuals to serve the last six months of their sentence under supervision in the community.