Keeping people in jail and prison longer doesnt deter crime, but it does exacerbate many root causes of harmful behavior.
Keeping people in jail and prison longer doesn't deter crime, but it does exacerbate many root causes of harmful behavior. RS

This happens every year. Legislators, responding to their constituencies, put forth bills that use the threat of punishment to address social issues as varied as reproductive rights, gun control, domestic violence, and drug use.

This War on Crime has been a bipartisan affair since the 1990s, though it’s true that Republicans and Democrats sometimes try to criminalize different things. During the Washington Legislature’s 2022 session, Republicans tried to criminalize certain kinds of abortion and houselessness while Democrats tried to criminalize certain kinds of guns and magazines. But the underlying logic of both efforts remains the same: To solve a social problem, put a crime on it. When this strategy doesn’t solve the problem, then make it into a worse crime.

The faulty logic of deterrence and punishment underlines the process: If we don’t criminalize and punish an activity, then “bad” people will “get away with” doing harmful things, and then more people will choose to cause harm.

But increasing punishment doesn’t deter people from doing harmful things. Jail and prison actually exacerbate many root causes of harmful behavior, such as desperation, exposure to violence, and isolation. For that reason, our criminal punishment system cannot be effective at doing the job it claims to do.

Despite its failures, however, that system has done a great job of growing. The number of people the US incarcerated increased 500% in 40 years, resulting in over two million people behind bars. Washington’s incarceration rate has more than doubled over the same period; in our state we lock people up at a rate four times higher than Canada. 

In order for the system to grow, the list of behaviors that count as criminal, and the length of sentences had to grow. And when we expand criminalization like this, marginalized groups ultimately bear the brunt of the growth.

Most people never report activities that are criminalized, and most of those that are reported are never “solved”. Instead, the criminal punishment system targets Black, brown, queer and trans, and poor people with police surveillance, harassment, arrest, and longer sentences. As the 2020 international uprisings highlighted, this targeting often comes with abusive and deadly use of force. Meanwhile, the criminal punishment system deepens inequality by draining health, money, and future resources from communities that are already poor and marginalized. 

Criminalization does not actually reduce harm or make our society safer – it makes things worse. In recent years, as we have recognized this, some important changes have begun to decrease sentences. Why then are Republican and Democrat legislators still continuing to propose new crimes?

Here is a selection of the criminal expansion bills still alive in the 2022 legislative session: 

Make new crimes: 

SB 5078 – This Democrat-sponsored bill makes a new gross misdemeanor for sale, purchase, manufacture, or transfer of firearms with magazines of 10+ rounds. The bill is intended to deter the circulation of high-capacity firearms.

HB 1844 – This bill has bipartisan sponsorship and would make a new crime of tattooing or branding another person in the context of trafficking. The bill passed out of committee but it didn’t make it to the floor, so it’s dead this year. That said, it could come back of leadership decides it’s “necessary to implement the budget,” or if a lawmaker passes a resolution to exempt the bill from certain deadlines.

Make existing crimes worse:

SB 5054 – This bipartisan bill makes it a felony to drive while substance-impaired when someone already has three or more prior impaired driving offenses within 15 years. It was already a felony if the offenses had occurred within 10 years.

SB 5148 – This Democrat-sponsored Senate bill elevates the crime of harassment to a class C felony if the person who is harassed is an elected official.  Of course, harassment is already a crime.

SB 5781 – This bipartisan bill would add an additional way to commit organized retail theft in the 2nd degree – three or more people entering a store within five minutes of each other and stealing items. Of course, stealing from a store was already a crime. 

This collection of bills might seem unrelated. Some of them address important social issues, such as gun violence, while some of them seem like minor adjustments to niche issues.

But we need to think of bills like these together as a group that expands the criminal punishment system. Bills that exacerbate inequalities and social problems. Bills that, instead of addressing root causes of harm or having the goal of reducing all types of harm in our society, confront problems with brute force. And we need to oppose them all. No New Crimes!

Last year and this year, Washington residents have signed on to a campaign that calls on Washington State Legislators to stop expanding criminalization. Sign on, and email your legislators and tell them to oppose all bills that expand criminalization, and stop expanding the criminal punishment system.

Leah Montange is a Pacific Northwesterner and Research Associate at the University of Toronto, where she recently received a PhD in Geography. She writes and teaches courses on borders, carceral geographies, and cities, most recently with the Freedom Education Project of the Puget Sound. She is a member of No New Washington Prisons and is active in movements against prison and detention expansion in Washington State.