This essay reviews the evolution of sentencing policy in Washington State, as well as the lessons learned about sentencing guidelines, the roles and powers of various institutions, and the impact of guidelines in shifting the allocation of discretion.
Washington State's sentencing reform in 1981 included all felonies, even those resulting in sentences to probation and jail, and enacted the first and only sentencing guidelines for juvenile offenders. In establishing sentencing reform in Washington, several lessons about sentencing guidelines were suggested: sentencing guidelines can significantly change sentencing patterns, guidelines can reduce disparities among offenders who are sentenced for similar crimes and have similar criminal histories, and unconstrained discretion in sentencing operates to favor whites and disfavor members of minority groups. In addition, lessons about the roles and powers of various institutions were suggested and included: sentencing commissions derive their power from the legislature and do not operate as an independent political force; guidelines are policy-neutral technologies that can be harnessed to attain the legislature's will; citizen initiatives concerning sentencing are likely to appear on the ballot, attract popular support, and effect significant changes; guidelines allow a State to set sentences with advance knowledge of the consequences of prison and jail populations and project necessary correctional resources; and guidelines, over time, are likely to become increasingly complex. Changes in sentencing laws, procedures, and processes shift the allocation of discretion. This essay is divided into six sections: (1) discussion of the early reformers' vision and the history of legislative actions prior to the adoption of guidelines legislation; (2) description of the first 5 years of the work of Washington's guidelines commission and the development of the sentencing grid and other related policies; (3) the time period of 1986-92 when the legislature reinstated itself as the source of policy direction was discussed; (4) discusses when citizen initiatives dominated State sentencing policy from 1993-95; (5) discusses the experiences since 1995; and (6) conclusion.