Washington state lawmakers consider allowing judges to reduce existing prison sentences | Local

Lawmakers in the Washington Senate discussed legislation Thursday that would allow judges to review and shorten long prison sentences, including life sentences.

2001 billalso known as the Judicial Discretion Act, was drafted by Charles Longshore, a criminal justice activist incarcerated in a prison north of Olympia. It is sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Kitsap, Washington’s first formerly incarcerated congresswoman.

“There is nothing more (the Department of Corrections) can offer me. I am considered a low risk to reoffend,” said Longshore, who is serving time for the murders of two people in 2012. “I have reconciled all the broken relationships. I took responsibility for my actions and heard the words “I forgive you” from the survivors of my case.

“But even after this message that I give you, I still have two decades left to serve,” Longshore said. “When will our state begin to review the sentences imposed?

The Judicial Discretion Act passed the House but did not make it to a Senate committee hearing during the 2024 legislative session, derailing the bill this year. In the meantime, lawmakers can still hold work sessions to learn more about the legislation. The next session begins on January 13, 2025.

Under the Judicial Discretion Act, people convicted of aggravated first-degree murder or considered “persistent offenders” would not be eligible for resentencing. Otherwise, prisoners are eligible if they have served 10 years if convicted as an adult or 7 years if convicted as a juvenile. Petitioners would have to demonstrate “substantial rehabilitation,” “minimal risk of reoffending,” or evidence of facts that were not available at the time of sentencing.

The state abolished parole in 1984, with few exceptions, during the national “tough on crime” movement. Prosecutors can seek a new sentence under a law that came into force in 2020Senate Bill 6164, but filed only 43 petitions out of 1,292 requests, according to public records requests data submitted by the Washington State Office of Public Defender.

“6164 is frankly a low priority,” Chad Enright, representing the Washington Prosecutors Association, said before lawmakers Thursday. “We do not have the staff to carry out substantial new convictions. »

The impact on victims, people in prison

Enright said he supported the bill but worried about the implications for crime victims, who may have to relive trauma during a prisoner’s motion, and for prosecutors, who are grappling with a lack of staff. Enright said a third of the positions in his Kitsap County office are empty. The Washington State Association of Counties said if the bill passes, the Legislature will need to provide counties with significant resources to implement it.

A sexual assault survivor, identified only as Lynne, pleaded with lawmakers not to allow people convicted of sexual assault to be eligible under the law if it passes.

“Should the conduct in prison outweigh the severity of the crime? Should victims of sexual assault break old wounds in order to meet an offender’s request for early release? » said Lynne. “We must not inflict further harm on innocent survivors. »

But groups representing survivors testified in favor of the legislation and praised the victims’ fund it would also create to support survivors through services and training. Em Stone, public policy director for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, referenced surveys suggesting crime victims are twice as likely to support rehabilitation rather than incarceration.

“What we hear most from survivors is that they want the abuse to stop and for the person who hurt them to get help,” said Stone, who also emphasized that the majority of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic violence violence, and many are in prison for crimes related to their abuse.

Currently and formerly incarcerated people said the Judicial Discretion Act would give hope to prisoners and encourage their rehabilitation. Jacob Schmitt, who was released from prison under Senate Bill 6164, called the system created by the 2020 law a “failed process” and said his release required “a tremendous amount of leverage.”

“I don’t know how we can make this a recipe that works well for county prosecutors or for defense attorneys,” Schmitt said. “But I want to emphasize to the committee that these factors should not be the deciding factors in how we administer justice – particularly when we know better. »

The Washington State Office of Public Defender, the Washington Defender Association, and the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission also testified on their behalf, noting the disproportionate impacts of incarceration on communities of color and cases where they saw people grow and change in prison.

“We don’t have discussions about the cost of incarcerating people,” said King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Galván, co-chair of the Minority and Justice Commission. “When it comes to correcting an injustice, we always say that “correcting our mistakes costs too much”. I argue that not correcting them represents an even greater cost.

This story was originally published on Washington State Standard.