LONGVIEW — Cowlitz County had the second-highest rate of residents in state prisons in Washington, according to an August report based on census data.
While the most populous counties in the state like King and Pierce had the most imprisoned residents, Cowlitz and other southwest Washington counties had the highest rates per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy nonprofit focused on mass incarceration.
The report states that nationwide research has found correlations between imprisonment and poverty, employment, education and health — factors which affect Cowlitz County’s high rate, according to local criminal justice system officials.
Changes like supporting youth, improving economic opportunities, and helping people reentering the community after time in prison or jail are needed to bring down the high rate, officials said.In 2019, Washington enacted an anti-gerrymandering law that required people incarcerated in state prisons be counted as residents of their last known home address. That allowed the Prison Policy Initiative to use 2020 census data to look at the number of people in prison by county, city or zip code per 100,000 people.
Statewide, 15,094 Washington residents were in state prisons in 2020, with an imprisonment rate of 197 per 100,000 people, according to the initiative’s August 2022 report. That does not include those in county jails.
Three southwest Washington counties had the highest imprisonment rates: Grays Harbor County with 470 per 100,000 people, Cowlitz County with 417 per 100,000 and Lewis County with 364 per 100,000.
King County had the highest number of residents imprisoned — 3,072 — but the tenth lowest rate at 135 per 100,000.
Nationally, Washington had the 12th lowest rate of all prisoners per 100,000 people, according to a 2021 Prison Policy Initiative report. That includes people in federal and state prisons, county jails, juvenile justice facilities and those involuntarily committed to other confinement. The United States has the highest incarceration rate globally, and almost all states have higher rates than any other country, according to the report.
Many different factors play into Cowlitz County’s high imprisonment rate, according to local law enforcement and criminal justice system officials.
Cowlitz County’s incarceration rate is higher in part because the crime rate in the more urban parts of the county is higher than the state average, said Longview Police Chief Robert Huhta in November.
In 2021, the rate of “Group A” offenses — such as murder, rape, assault, kidnapping, robbery, burglary — in Longview was about 78 per 1,000 people compared to the state average of about 63 per 1,000, according to Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs data.
Serious offense rates were also above state average in Kelso and Woodland, but lower in unincorporated Cowlitz County, Kalama and Castle Rock, according to the association’s 2021 report.
In Longview, and likely the rest of Cowlitz County, a lot of crime is related to drugs, even if the crime is not a drug offense, Huhta said.
A February 2021 state Supreme Court ruling, known as the Blake decision, threw out the state’s simple drug possession law and state legislators replaced the felony measure with a misdemeanor that requires two referrals to drug treatment before arresting suspects. The temporary fix is set to expire in July.
This change is not reflected in the imprisonment rate report, and 2021 rates were likely down because of the Blake decision, Huhta said. It’s unclear if the Blake decision will decrease the incarceration rate in the long term or if people will get arrested for different offenses, he said.
Beyond the initial arrest, police do not determine charges, convictions or sentences, Huhta said.
“Our officers, detectives do a great job to get the best case possible, but once we do our work, it’s out of our hands,” he said.
Charges and sentences
After someone is arrested, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office decides if they are charged and for what, which affects if and how long someone is incarcerated.
In general, the Cowlitz County office receives more felony referrals than other similarly-sized counties, said Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Jurvakainen in August.
After a drop in 2021 following the Blake decision, felony referrals rebounded somewhat in 2022 but remained on the low-end historically, Jurvakainen said.
For some, the county’s therapeutic courts provide an alternative to prison, Jurvakainen said. Cowlitz County’s Drug Court participation increased in late 2022 after a decline because of the pandemic and Blake decision, he said. Mental Health Court numbers were also up.
In response to the Blake decision, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office expanded Drug Court eligibility, which allows people an opportunity to get help while resolving cases, Jurvakainen said.
After someone is convicted, any prison sentence depends on the crime and the person’s felony history.
Washington’s sentencing regulations include a grid that weighs the seriousness of the crime with an offender score based on past felonies, Jurvakainen said. Prior convictions of serious felonies, like first-degree assault, murder, and sex crimes, will always be included in the offender score, while others may drop off over time, according to state law.
For example, if someone is convicted of second-degree burglary, that person would have to have an offender score of four or higher to go to prison, Jurvakainen said.
“What Washington is dealing with is a lot of people sentenced to prison for a long time because of a serious crime,” he said. “For Cowlitz, it’s a mix of people with one or a few serious crimes and a long history that adds up.”
Of the 13,117 individuals incarcerated as of Dec. 31, 2022, about 29% had assault as their most serious current offense, according to the Department of Corrections. That’s followed by 25% with sex crimes, 18% with first- or second-degree murder and 11% with property crimes.
Judges determining sentences are limited by state and federal law, including Sentencing Reform Acts passed in the mid-1980s, Cowlitz County Superior Court Michael Evans said in an email on behalf of the bench. Mandatory minimum sentences have also removed judges’ discretion, Evans said.
Many factors have led to the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the world, including a history of punitive policies targeting low-income communities, Evans said.
Addressing racial disparities among prisoners could also decrease the incarceration rate, he said.
In Washington, as of Dec. 31, 2022, Black people made up 17.3% of those incarcerated in state prisons, compared to 4.5% of the state population, according to the Department of Corrections. American Indian and Alaska Natives were 5.5% of state prisoners compared to 2% of the population.
Intertwining factors, rules, laws and funding affect Cowlitz County’s rate, including these national policies, Evans said.
Cowlitz County’s location on the Interstate 5 corridor is a “main thoroughfare” for drug trafficking, Evans said.
People with a lower level of education or who are unemployed are more likely to be incarcerated, Evans said. In turn, having a criminal history limits opportunities for school, the military or employment, he said.
About 17% of Cowlitz County residents 25 and older had a Bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 37% statewide, according to the Census Bureau. The state’s high school graduation rate was also slightly higher at about 92% compared to 90% in Cowlitz County.
Cowlitz County’s unemployment rate of 5.8% in December 2022 was higher than the state rate of 4.2% and national rate of 3.5%, according to the Employment Security Department. The county also had a higher poverty rate.
Many people who go to jail or prison have mental health challenges. Statewide, the number of referrals for competency restoration evaluations and services increased 87% over the last seven fiscal years, according to the state Department Social and Health Services.
Increasing the availability of mental health and substance use treatment, family wage jobs and focus on reentry into society after prison or jail would help decrease the county’s high imprisonment rate, Evans said.
Statewide, about 30% of people released will return to prison within three years, according to the Department of Corrections.
Access to safe and affordable housing is the primary barrier to successful reentry, according to the Washington Statewide Reentry Council’s 2020 biennial report. Successful reentry requires individual planning that includes safe and affordable housing, strong community supports and access to technology, the report states.
The Cowlitz County community, and society overall, needs to find a way to make an impact on people early in life so they don’t commit crimes, said Longview Police Chief Huhta. That could include connecting with youth facing problems at home or other stresses and teaching them healthy coping mechanisms, he said.
Cowlitz County has many good programs and resources but it can be hard to navigate those when in a crisis, Huhta said.
Insufficient funding for mental health programs, the Blake decision and lack of housing are contributing factors to Cowlitz County’s higher incarceration rate. While not unique to the county, those challenges had a “drastic impact” in the last few years, he said.
“We have to start trying to tackle them,” Huhta said. “There’s no perfect solution. We have to work together and agree enough to help us get out of the situation.”