Program Goal/Program Components
In 2003, the Washington State Legislature passed an earned release law (ESSB 5990), which allowed incarcerated individuals who had committed certain nonviolent drug and property offenses to leave prison prior to the end of their sentences by acquiring earned release time of up to 50 percent of their maximum sentence. Usually, in Washington, the amount of time individuals are sentenced to serve in prison is determined by sentencing grids; individuals may not leave confinement prior to the expiration of the maximum sentence. However, under the 2003 law, early release time could be obtained by eligible individuals if the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) determined that the individuals had exhibited good conduct and participated in DOC-approved programs such as work, education, and treatment programs.
The law modified a previous earned release law that allowed incarcerated individuals to earn a maximum of 33 percent of their total sentence, increasing it to 50 percent. Earned release time could also be revoked, however, on disciplinary grounds. The overall goal was to lower the statewide incarceration rate of individuals who had committed certain types of offenses.
To be eligible for early release under the new law, incarcerated individuals had to be in one of the two lowest risk categories, as determined by the DOC’s risk assessment tool. Furthermore, individuals convicted of any of the following charges were considered ineligible: violent offense, sex offense, crime against a person, domestic violence offense, residential burglary, manufacture or delivery of methamphetamine, or delivery of a controlled substance to a minor.
The 2003 law expired on July 1, 2010. The 50 percent earned release time did not apply to anyone convicted after that date.
Drake and Barnoski (2009) found that there was a significant difference on felony convictions between the Washington State Earned Release Law intervention group and the comparison group. At the follow up, 39 percent of the intervention group had felony convictions, compared with 42 percent for the control group; this was a statistically significant difference.
However, there was no statistically significant difference between the intervention and comparison groups on violent convictions.
To examine the impact of the Washington State Earned Release Law, Drake, Barnoski, and Aos (2009) conducted a quasi-experimental design study with a matched comparison group, to examine the recidivism of individuals who were released from incarceration between July 2003 and July 2010 in Washington State. During this time, when an individual entered prison, the criminal history in the Department of Corrections (DOC) operational database was automatically searched to determine if the individual was eligible for 50 percent release time. When an individual was found to be potentially eligible, the individual’s criminal history was further investigated through a comprehensive interstate exchange of criminal history maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to ensure eligibility for early release. There were 2,297 individuals eligible for earned release time who formed the intervention group for the study.
A comparison group was selected by the study authors, who developed an algorithm to determine who would have been eligible for 50 percent release time prior to July 2003. There were 4,840 individuals who were eligible for earned release before 2003, and these individuals formed the comparison group.
The intervention group was 78 percent male. In terms of race/ethnicity, 74 percent were white, 19 percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic. The comparison group was 80 percent male. In terms of race/ethnicity, 71 percent were white, 23 percent were black, and 17 percent were Hispanic. There were significant differences between the intervention and comparison groups at baseline. The comparison group had higher risk factors associated with recidivism, including criminal history, offense seriousness, sentence length, and demographics. Additionally, the comparison group had higher risk factors, including non-drug risk score, violent-felony risk score, and Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) seriousness level. To account for these differences, the study authors created three additional comparison groups to test the effect of the earned release law: 1) risk-variable matched groups; 2) risk-variable matched groups in which the study authors and DOC agreed on eligibility; and 3) matched groups based on individual scores, offense severity level, and number of days at the midpoint of the sentencing grid. For the CrimeSolutions.gov review, the outcomes of the overall intervention group, compared with the overall comparison group, were considered (the results of the three additional comparison groups are provided under Other Information).
Regression analyses were used to adjust for the observed differences between the intervention and comparison groups within the 3 years of the follow up.
Drake and Barnoski (2009) conducted a cost–benefit analysis of the earned release time law. They looked at the estimated benefits, based on reduced recidivism rates, costs saved from prison (due to reduce lengths of stay), and increased labor market earnings of individuals leaving prison early. They also looked at the estimated costs, including the total increase in crime due to individuals leaving prison early. Overall, they found a total net benefit per participant of $7,179 and a benefit-to-cost ratio of $1.88, meaning the law produced $1.88 in benefits per dollar of cost.
Drake and Barnoski (2009) created three additional comparison groups to test the effect of the earned release law and account for baseline differences between the overall intervention group and the overall comparison group. The results for the three additional comparison groups were similar to the results for the overall comparison group.
When looking at the risk-variable matched groups (i.e., individuals closely matched on variables and demographics related to risk for recidivism), 38 percent of the intervention group had felony convictions at the follow up, compared with 41 percent of the comparison group. This was a statistically significant difference. However, there was no statistically significant difference between the groups on violent convictions.
For the risk-variable matched groups in which the study authors and the Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed on eligibility, there were no significant differences between the groups on felony or violent convictions.
For the Sentencing Reduction Act (SRA) matched groups (i.e., individuals who were matched on three SRA characteristics: participant score, offense severity level, and length of sentence), 41 percent of the intervention group had felony convictions at the follow up, compared with 45 percent of the comparison group. This was a statistically significant difference. However, there was no statistically significant difference between groups on violent convictions.
Evidence-Base (Studies Reviewed)