By RaeLynn Ricarte | The Center Square
Their latest effort, Senate Bill 5036, has drawn fire from legislators and prosecutors on the more conservative east side of the state. The measure seeks to give prisoners serving life without parole sentences the opportunity to seek commutation after 15, 20 or 25 years, depending upon the type of crime.
SB 5036 was approved in the Senate last week by a 28-19 vote with no Republican support.
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, is the minority floor leader. She said the measure received no votes from the GOP because the complex issue did not first have a “thoughtful, deliberative and balanced” discussion.
“The timing for this was just wrong,” she said. “Crime has exploded across the nation and we need to fix some of the police reform measures that went through last year in our state that are causing public safety concerns. The whole system is being turned upside down and we need to slow down and take our time to consider the rights of victims and all of the potential consequences.”
Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said SB 5036 “is another piece of legislation that represents an attack on the justice system.”
“This proposed legislation ignores the rights of victims and those whose lives are impacted by wrongful violent actions of those who have no respect for others,” he said. “It substitutes the judgment of a jury who, after hearing all admissible evidence, decided the case, to the judgment of people who do not hear the evidence and who are captive to a political ideology. They value forgiveness and, therefore, believe it ought to be available to anyone, without regard to what they have done or are liable to do again. They sympathize with the convicted defendant and have no compassion for the person or the families who were victimized.”
Prisoner rights advocates contend that it is time to give well-behaved inmates who have served significant time the opportunity for redemption. They say the idea of locking people up for life should be a thing of the past and offenders should be given a path to freedom after they have demonstrated that they are no longer a threat to outside communities.
“This bill would establish a system in which individuals who have reformed themselves over many years could be released to community custody,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, a Democrat, who sponsored the bill, during the state Senate debate. “This is not about pardons. This is about recognizing that people change.”
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, who resides in Spokane, was unable to be reached for comment. He voted in support of SB 5036.
Also unable to be reached was Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell.
Short said the same bill was approved by Democrats in the Senate last year but stalled in the House, where it is now once again under consideration in the Public Safety Committee. Republicans in that chamber have also stated strong opposition.
“Pushing through something like this because you can as the majority just keeps us on opposite sides and prevents the unity we need for true reform,” said Short.
Under SB 5036, 128 offenders now serving time in Washington for aggravated murder or first-degree murder would immediately become eligible to apply for commutation of their sentences. Within the next five years, another 68 offenders would be eligible to seek commutation.
Additionally, 321 inmates sentenced to life without parole who have been incarcerated for more than 20 years could apply for commutation.
Those serving long sentences have been convicted not only of murder, said Short, but a host of violent crimes, including rape and child molestation.
“The clemency process was never designed to be easy,” she said. “When someone is given one of these long sentences, it is because he or she has caused great harm to a victim, and we need to make sure that justice is not denied these families.”
There are 12 prisons in Washington, including two for women. The population of inmates became so large several times during the past decade that the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) shipped inmates to other states to be housed.
In 2018, the DOC reported 17,467 prisoners, a number that dropped to just shy of 14,000 toward the end of 2021, according to the state Office of Financial Management.
Some of that decrease came about when DOC announced in 2020 that it was releasing more than 1,000 prisoners most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Another major change in Washington’s laws affecting incarceration came in 2021 when the state Supreme Court ruled that the felony drug possession law was unconstitutional. That led many police departments to announce they would stop arresting people for simple drug possession. Rasmussen said prosecutions for drug-related crimes dropped off sharply.
Last year the DOC was tasked by Gov. Jay Inslee with cutting $80 million from its budget over a two-year period and reported the reduction of 3,300 prison cells. Inslee and other Democrat leaders called on prosecutors to utilize diversion programs such as intervention and treatment instead of putting people behind bars.
Also in 2021, Senate Bill 6164 was approved, which created a new procedure for prisoners to request that prosecutors petition the court for a lesser sentence if the original one “no longer advances the interests of justice.”
“There is a place for prisons,” said Rasmussen. “If we don’t prosecute people for the harm they do, then there is no justice.”
Hilary Young, vice-president of advocacy and philanthropy for Pioneer Human Services, believes there is also a place for mercy and redemption. Pioneer is the state’s largest and oldest nonprofit to help people re-entering society from a prison acquire the job and life skills they need to succeed.
About 10,000 former prisoners receive help from the Seattle-based organization and its Spokane affiliate each year, said Young.
“Ninety-five percent of prisoners are going to get out at some point and we’re all going to be better off, and our communities are going to be better off, if we give them a second chance,” she said.
Most offenders serving long sentences, she said, were involved in an isolated incident, something that happened in the moment, and they no longer pose a threat to society.
She said statistics also show that older inmates have aged out of criminal behavior of their past and are likely to become contributing members of their communities if they are shown compassion and given practical support.
“People in prison are people first and recognizing that humanity can bring us together,” she said.
Although Pioneer does not take a stance on sentencing bills, such as SB 5036, Young said having Americans trade mass incarceration for true rehabilitation would be more effective at stopping recidivism. Washington currently has a recidivism rate of 32% after three years of release, according to the DOC.
If SB 5036 is approved, Young said people who have been incarcerated for decades will face an almost overwhelming challenge if not given some help when they return to a world that has changed in almost every way, particularly in its technological advances.
Pioneer will seek to provide these people with job skills and the resources to help them navigate the complexities they will encounter, she said.
“They are going to need a lot of support,” said Young.
Although opponents of SB 5036 have focused on the possibility that Gary Ridgway, commonly known as the Green River Killer, could one day receive commutation by the new rules, proponents say that is improbable because commutation isn’t guaranteed. They said the bill outlines stringent supervisory standards for prisoners who are released and a thorough review process before that happens.
Short said the parole system is already underfunded and overburdened so she is doubtful there is the manpower for strict supervision. She said there is already an “utmost scrutiny” standard in state law regarding clemency and pardons so she again questions the need for SB 5036 to be rushed through the system.
When Republicans held the majority in the Senate, Short said she made it a practice as majority leader to reach across the aisle to try to find common ground with her Democratic constituents. She said that is not happening anymore in Olympia and the problems that emerged from a spate of police reform bills shoved through the system last year show what happens when issues are not thoroughly vetted.
“I get that we need some reforms to our prison system, I think most of us realize that,” she said. “But getting there has to be a deliberative and thorough process. I think there is going to be serious pushback from voters if people are let out of prison without true rehabilitation and then commit new crimes.”