Washington Incarcerates Too Many People for Life. Could a New Bill Offer Salvation?

by Peter Johnson

For thirty-three years, Washington state has not allowed its prisoners a chance at parole. A proposal by state Representative Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat from Tacoma, would change that.

Unfortunately, the bill, HB 1789, did not make it out of the House Criminal Justice Committee in its entirety. If the portion that passed committee clears the full Legislature and is approved by Governor Jay Inslee, then Washington will begin an overhaul of its harsh sentencing standards.

If the bill, HB 1789, had passed in its entirety, it would have accomplished two major goals. First, it would have created a state parole board, appointed by the governor, that would have had members from inside and outside the criminal justice system. Under the proposal, prisoners incarcerated for a minimum of twenty years would have been able to petition for early release, as long as they weren’t convicted of first-degree murder or a sex offense.

The part of the bill that did pass committee—Section 16—would begin an independent review process of the state’s sentencing guidelines. Part of the review would assess whether current sentencing standards disproportionately impact communities of color. Section 16 will be evaluated by the state’s full House of Representatives and has a strong likelihood of passing.

Jinkins drafted the bill after being approached by constituents with incarcerated family members. Many of those imprisoned, would-be constituents are serving life sentences for crimes they committed at a very young age.

Jinkins states she has a long-term commitment to the issue as the effort could take years. But the representative of Washington’s 27th Legislative District is optimistic that some relief for incarcerated people and their families is forthcoming.

“It helps us start looking at what it is we’ve done [with sentencing], and what it is we need to think about doing in the future,” Jinkins says. “We’ll end up with a plan for how we alter Washington’s sentencing laws to be something that works for our communities, and for the people that are in jail and their family members.”

It’s a major issue for Washington’s communities of color. People of color are incarcerated and arrested more often than white people. In 2008, African Americans and Hispanic people accounted for 58 percent of all prisoners in the United States; black and Hispanic people only accounted for around twenty-five percent of the US population at that point. HB 1789 would not have fixed those policing-related problems.

However, reintroducing parole and easing sentencing rules would let some prisoners get out sooner. That would provide major relief to beleaguered communities, and make life much better for families who have lost a member to the prison system for life. Many families have been hurt by harsh sentencing.

Washington’s punitive sentencing laws were passed in the 1980s and 1990s. Politicians of that era wanted to be considered “tough on crime.” Sentences for all sorts of crimes, including non-violent offenses, were lengthened. Two laws in particular during this period have been credited with swelling Washington’s prison population.

The first was the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981, which banned early release from prison. The law went into effect in 1984. Since then, no person convicted of a crime in Washington can be released prior to their sentence’s end date.

The second “tough on crime” measure, the three strikes law, made the impact of the Sentencing Reform Act even more dramatic. That law requires people convicted of three or more felonies to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives.

Washington’s three strikes law was the first of its kind in the United States. Many states followed suit with their own versions of a three strikes law. The federal government, with the enthusiastic backing of Bill Clinton and other Democrats, also passed a three strikes law.

Politicians belonging to the tough on crime era argued, with the support of a large body of criminology research, that people convicted of crimes could not rehabilitate themselves. Democrats followed the lead of centrists like Bill Clinton and rushed to match or outdo conservatives’ efforts to lock away more people.

The results of the tough on crime era have been disastrous. The United States has the world’s highest rate of incarceration—the United States has five percent of the world’s population, but twenty percent of its prisoners—and communities of color have been devastated.

All communities of color face a heavier impact from harsh sentencing laws than the white community, but those effects are most pronounced in the black community. One in six living African American men has been incarcerated. If current trends continue, one-third of black men will be incarcerated over the course of their lifetime.

Because of those trends, it was no surprise that many of those testifying in favor of HB 1789 at the state house were black women who hoping to see their loved ones released from prison. Wives, sisters, and mothers of black men serving long sentences in Washington state prisons all spoke to the House Criminal Justice Committee about the suffering that long sentences inflicted on their families.

One of those women, Cassandra Butler, told the committee about her brother, Thomas Butler. Thomas was convicted of a third strike offense in 2009. He was shot by a homeowner while attempting to steal drugs from the man’s house.

At the hospital he was rushed to, Law enforcement officials compelled the staff to wake Thomas from his medically-induced coma to start talking about his three strikes plea deal. Thomas is serving six consecutive life sentences, even though he was the only person to be injured by his actions.

“When we got to the hospital, they told us to say goodbye,” Cassandra told the legislators. “They thought he was going to die. He didn’t die, but through the three strikes law and the judicial process we lost him anyways.”

Like many family members of the incarcerated, Cassandra had to take on additional burdens of responsibility after Thomas went to prison for good. Cassandra frequently helps watch Thomas’s son, Braden. She also takes Bradon to visit his father in prison.

The transfer of family obligations is a depressingly common story. Removing a person from their community has all sorts of negative economic effects on the people on the outside.

Childcare, earning, eating, and housing can all become difficult for families with incarcerated members. It’s common for a partner or co-parent of an incarcerated person to have to work several jobs in order to survive financially.

There’s also the piling up of continual legal fees that strain already tight household budgets. Additionally, visits to remote, rural prisons become an immense expense for most families and require long travel times that can be disruptive to work and childcare schedules. Even calling a family member on the phone is expensive.

HB 1789 wouldn’t have solved all those problems, and it would not provide relief to all the families who have relatives in prison. However, reinstating parole would give families and prisoners hope. Also, studies show that parole creates an incentive for prisoners to avoid violence and reduces prisoners’ risk of recidivism

Kim Nobles, whose husband, Willie, is serving a 96-year sentence, explained how much outside incentives can change a prisoner. Willie wanted to be a good example to his son, so he became an educator and community leader in prison.

“Willie has grown so much. He’s gotten his GED and is on his way to his Associate’s’ degree. He teaches other people who are incarcerated,” says Nobles. “Both Willie and I understand that there have to be consequences for actions. But we also believe in forgiveness, redemption, and second chances. Willie will do so much for our community if he comes home. At the end of the day, that’s all we’re asking for—a chance.”

However, Olympia tends to move slowly. The state’s perpetual struggle to fund education and Seattle’s interminable struggle to remove the Alaskan Way Viaduct are proof enough of that. Any chances of parole and sentencing reform are far off.

The sentencing study that did make its way out of the House Criminal Justice Committee might not clear the Republican-held state Senate. Even if it does, it will take some time to study the system and submit its report to the Legislature.

Those recommendations, if they do come, would then be subject to the political process and opposition from crime victims’ rights organizations and law enforcement. Indeed, several prosecutors made the trip to Olympia to testify against HB 1789.

So did one crime victim, Dan Clemens, whose son, Jay, was murdered. Clemens mistakenly believed that Jay’s killer would have been eligible for HB 1789’s review process. However, Jay’s killer was convicted of first-degree murder. Prisoners convicted of that crime would not have been eligible for the HB 1789 review process.

Still, there are signs that something like HB 1789 could pass. The bill attracted one Republican sponsor, Melanie Stambaugh of Puyallup. Other moderate Republicans might follow suit. Criminal justice reform has become a major issue for the Democratic Party, thanks to officials like Representative Eric Pettigrew, the South Seattle Democrat who was a cosponsor of HB 1789.

But the biggest asset for the criminal justice reform movement is women like Cassandra Butler and family members like her. If people like Butler continue to lobby representatives and visit their incarcerated family members, there’s no small chance that some prisoners will become free people again.

Peter Johnson is a Columbia City resident 

Featured image is cc licensed photo attributed to Raffaella/via Flickr 

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