The Washington state budget for 2023-2025 makes important changes to the state criminal legal system over the next biennium. The budget includes funding that would go toward reforming harmful legal financial obligations (LFOs), responding to the State v. Blake decision (the 2021 state Supreme Court decision that ruled the felony drug possession law was unconstitutional), and making other necessary funding adjustments to the criminal legal system.
True public safety comes from robustly funding public services, authentic community-building, and access to necessities like housing and cash. Some of the funding in the final budget gets us closer to this kind of public safety by boosting community well-being for people involved in the criminal legal system and their families.
While the budget includes less funding for State v. Blake needs and does not fund state-level investigations of police use of (deadly) force as compared to the House and Senate proposals, it funds some impactful policies that will increase economic and legal justice in Washington.
How the final budget impacts the criminal legal system
The budget includes $155 million, or about 0.002% of the total budget, in key changes to state criminal legal system spending. The passed budget continues to include critical funding for:
- court services to end reliance on LFO debts from youth and adults who can’t afford to pay;
- increased wages for people who are incarcerated;
- and necessary state-led studies on LFOs, juvenile justice, and the conditions of people who are incarcerated, amongst other system-related funding.
The specific changes to criminal legal system spending in the final budget include:
State v. Blake impact funding
The Washington State Supreme Court State v. Blake decision, where the Court found that the statute that criminalized possession of a controlled substance was unconstitutional, was crucial in addressing the combined impacts experienced by people ensnared in the racist War on Drugs in Washington. This decision meant that more than 100,000 people with this conviction could get the offense removed from their record, receive sentence adjustments, and be eligible for a refund of any LFOs paid.
The budget that the legislature passed during the regular session includes $123 million for needs specific to State v. Blake. About $113 million of these specific final budget moneys go to the Office of Public Defense, the Office of Civil Legal Aid, and counties and local jurisdictions to process LFO refunds and ensure people are represented for certain record vacations. And money is spread across multiple state agencies and jurisdictions to support substance use disorder (SUD) treatment. This funding gives impacted people quicker and more efficient ways of receiving refunds and vacating their records through the courts.
Lawmakers reconvened in May during a special session to pass Senate Bill (SB) 5536 to ensure legal processes and funding for SUD treatment and to re-criminalize drug possession. Thus, the remaining $10 million included above is specifically allotted to different state agencies for purposes of substance use disorder treatment. The $10 million we’ve included here for SB 5536 are a part of larger, indirect funding across many state agencies for SUD treatment and State v. Blake needs. As SB 5536 rolls out, lawmakers, state and court system actors, and legal advocates must ensure geographic justice so that impacted people across all parts of Washington receive necessary treatment.Some of the funding in the final budget gets us closer to true public safety by boosting community well-being for people involved in the criminal legal system and their families. Click To Tweet
The budget continues to include $5 million for re-entry grants that go to community organizations to provide services and support to people returning home from prison. Separately, the final budget maintains $4.3 million for re-entry services to the Department of Corrections and to individuals for gate money – compared to the $6 million that the Senate included in its budget proposal. This still increases the amount of money a person receives at the gate when leaving prison from $40 to $300. Increasing this amount for the first time since the 1970s is necessary given that, due to inflation, $40 in 1971 – when this legislation was first introduced – is equivalent to $302 in 2023 dollars. It’s crucial that the Department of Corrections use this funding to ensure that people receive the intended $300. Legislators must return to this policy and increase the amount provided as gate money to people returning home, so they have a chance to afford rent and buy necessary items.
Legal Financial Obligations
The budget includes funding of around $5 million for House Bill (HB) 1169, which focuses on legal financial obligations. HB 1169 eliminates the final two mandatory LFOs that courts are required to impose on people, regardless of whether they can pay. This bill creates a crime victim and witness fund to partially replace the Victim Penalty Assessment (VPA) and creates a DNA database account fund with the state. The VPA funds services within county prosecutors’ offices focused on facilitating testimony by victims and witnesses. The DNA database account funds DNA sample collection and operation of the state DNA database.
HB 1169 rightfully eliminates the rest of the youth discretionary LFOs that are on the books, as these fines and fees rarely get imposed on youth. The crime victim and witness account is funded at $4 million, and more than $950,000 is included for the DNA database account. Further, around $150,000 is provided to conduct research and provide greater transparency of the LFO system. An additional $600,000 will fund the Juvenile Justice Partnership Council to provide recommendations on expanding juvenile justice practices with regard to youth restitution. In total, almost $6 million of funding is dedicated to increased LFO studies for transparency and LFO system changes.
Increased wages for people who are incarcerated
HB 1024, which the legislature failed to pass, was an attempt to address the “slavery loophole” clause of the 13th amendment, that exempts slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment upon conviction of a crime – where people that are incarcerated in Washington produce goods and services that generated $68 million in revenue in 2022 with their labor but were only paid at maximum $2.70 an hour.1 Instead of passing HB 1024, the final budget maintains $7 million in increased wages for people incarcerated – ensuring that people participating in correctional work and training programs earn no less than $1 an hour.2 At these rates, someone working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks would make between $2,080 and $5,600 per year. Yet, this is an increase in wages for certain workers who are incarcerated.
Although this money can help people afford basic needs, such as hygiene products, communication with family, and potential increases in contributions toward LFO debts, the amount provided is significantly less than the state minimum wages that advocates sought in the bill this session. Further, recent significant rises in inflation severely undercut and impact the costs of basic items inside prison – making increased wages for incarcerated workers even more necessary. If the state is going to incarcerate people as a punishment and profit off their labor, people should at least be rightly paid for their work.
Funding to study the criminal legal system
We know that our racist criminal legal and prison system particularly harms Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Research shows that, in Washington, there is an increased likelihood of arrest and longer prison sentences for Black and Indigenous people.3 Black and Indigenous people are arrested at rates of around three and two times, respectively, more than their relative population sizes and in comparison to white people.4 Black and Indigenous people are also disproportionately sentenced for felonies in Washington and are more likely to receive longer and harsher sentences.5
The final budget funds more than $1 million for the Office of the Governor, the Department of Corrections, and the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) to conduct studies on the legal and prison systems, including county jail and juvenile facilities, solitary confinement, and prison costs and conditions. These studies will provide transparency into the conditions of these systems and inform future legislation on criminal legal system reforms to help address these harms.
Lawmakers left out important funding regarding police accountability
The final budget does not include the House proposal’s funding for investigations of police use of (deadly) force within the Office of Attorney General – which would be a helpful resource for families of loved ones who are killed by police in Washington. Recent research demonstrates that in larger cities across Washington, Black people and Indigenous people are five and three times, respectively, more likely than white people to be stopped by the police.6 These encounters are also more likely to result in excessive and deadly force. While the House budget included $5 million for HB 1579 to increase support of independent investigations reviewing police use of deadly force, the final budget included no money – as the bill did not pass.
More important work ahead to bring economic and legal justice to impacted people
The budget funds the crime victim and witness account and DNA database account with state dollars; includes funding to slightly increase wages of incarcerated people; and includes funding for state-led studies on our criminal legal and prison system. Funding these policies reduces the harm of our unjust system of fines and fees, brings greater transparency to our criminal legal system, and reduces barriers to people successfully returning home after incarceration.
Again, of the nearly $70 billion in the state budget, only about 0.002% of total state funds go toward these criminal legal system impacts. This is not enough and legislators must increase funding of social services that effectively advance economic and legal justice in the future to support true public and community safety in which everyone can more safely live. Lawmakers must fund transformative programs highlighted in our cash assistance budget post such as guaranteed basic income and the Washington Future Fund, among additional policies that improve people’s material conditions.
It’s important to note that we continue to support other criminal legal system and policing funding adjustments and policies that impacted people and community/legal advocates demand. To learn more about some of those important efforts, visit the websites of Civil Survival Project, Columbia Legal Services, ACLU of Washington, and Living with Conviction.