Image: Herbet Ratliff, 23 at the time, and his partner bought three cars with their trail of checks, but their journey came to a screeching halt at a resort near Lake Sammamish when they were arrested.
Nearly 75 years after their incarceration, a stack of inmates’ mugshots surfaced in a box of forgotten vintage black-and-white photographs at a cluttered Centralia antique store.
Underneath each card’s punch hole, once thread through something like an office binder or filing cabinet, a man stands with a sign around his neck that reads, “Washington State Reformatory.” The crimes the men committed are typed on the back of each mugshot.
When taking a look at the back of the photographs, some sentences for what could now be considered petty crimes seem quite long — digging for clams, entering a laundromat while drunk — while others seem too short for crimes that could now possibly fit under class A felonies.
A trip to Seattle ended in arrest
When the two young men traveled the west coast from Los Angles to Seattle in 1940, they paid their way by cashing a series of worthless checks totaling $1,200 — a value of nearly $20,000 today.
Herbet Ratliff, 23 at the time, and his partner bought three cars with their trail of checks, but their journey came to a screeching halt at a resort near Lake Sammamish when they were arrested.
When facing a King County judge, Ratliff was handed a 20-year sentence in Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe.
During Ratliff’s time, Washington State Reformatory — currently operating under the name Monroe Correctional Complex — housed felons with the intention of providing industrial training and military discipline. But idleness among inmates became a huge problem during this decade, mostly due to inadequately trained employees.
A supervisor talked to The Seattle Times in 1942, acknowledging that these difficulties were negatively impacting their roughly 3,000 inmates.
“Five or six years of enforced idleness will ruin any individual,” Dr. Richard McGee said in the article. “They soon fall into lethargy that damages them and makes it difficult for them to work when work is offered.”
It’s unclear what Ratliff worked on, or didn’t work on, while serving time. But what we do know is that Ratliff received 15 years more than what the maximum sentence for a forgery charge under current Washington State law currently lists.
Other mugshots reveals more unbalanced penalties
Other inmates found in this stack of unearthed mugshots also served more time, or less, before the laws were revised.
- For example, grand larceny, now theft, could come with a 15-year sentence. Many people served time for property crimes that now rarely result in jail time.
- Public intoxication, now treated under behavioral health services, could get someone arrested if they were using profanity under the influence.
- The crime of seduction, under 1909 criminal code in Washington, largely involved men having sex with chaste women. Some court cases show that men were engaging in non-consensual sex; sometimes, it involved teen girls.
The bulk of these sentences and laws were changed in a state criminal code overhaul in 1976.
With unbalanced penalties, lawmakers, justices and prosecutors wrote about the need for change in a review journal years before the code was enacted.
“The inadequacies in the existing criminal code have had profound detrimental effects on the quality and reputation of law enforcement and criminal justice in Washington,” former state Senator Perry Woodall wrote.
“The glaring inadequacies in the present criminal code create a critical lack of public confidence not only in the code itself, but also in the police, prosecutors and courts.”
So how did this change impact incarceration leading up to today?
As state laws evolved from the overhaul over the last 40 years, incarceration in Washington state only increased. Washington’s up-tick coincides with national numbers, such as when an emphasis on drug crimes began in the 1980s, dramatically increasing the prison population for decades. It’s stabilized over the last few years.
According to the latest Department of Corrections numbers, 17,500 people make up the prison population today; among those are mostly middle-aged white men serving for violent crimes. But reform advocates point out that the state — in line with national trends — still has racial disparities in its inmate population. While nearly 70 percent of Washington state’s inmates are white, the imprisonment rate for black people is higher when looking at arrests per 100,000 people.
Most of those serving in state receive a sentence for over ten years. Washington state saw a decrease in inmates in 2010 after a decade of reducing sentences for drug crimes, but this also coincides with nearly 3,200 inmates being set free erroneously.
But in this shift, the emphasis of crimes committed turned to violent crimes, such as murder, rape and assault.
With the amount of violent offenders incarcerated, Tom McBride, a spokesman for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, has said, “It’s hard to find anybody who doesn’t deserve to be there.”
How do reform advocates want to move forward?
Even with some of the lowest incarceration numbers in the country, housing inmates comes at a high cost: $36,000 for each inmate annually. To relieve that fiscal burden, that’s where advocates – and some state and city leaders – argue a different approach in putting more money in prevention and treatment versus paying for a lengthy sentence.
Members of criminal justice reform group The Sentencing Project say large prison population mostly comes down to the time given to inmates.
When asked if another criminal code re-write — like the one in 1976 — is due, executive director Mark Mauer said probably not.
“I think it’s unlikely a new code would reverse the trends we’re seeing,” Mark Mauer said. “It may or may not be a good time to review and think about a re-write, amending parts of it, but I think that should be determined on its own merits.”
Mauer says that change, in part, comes from rethinking the amount of time given to inmates.
To change the trends, Mauer’s group believes it largely comes down substantial revisions in how people are sentenced. His group advocates for the elimination of minimum sentences and cutting back on excessive lengthy sentences.