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by Jack Russillo
During this year’s session, the Washington State Legislature voted nearly along party lines to pass a bill that removes all second-degree robbery convictions from the list of charges that apply to the state’s “three strikes” policy.
On April 26, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5164 into law, which will grant a resentencing hearing to people who have already been convicted of second-degree robbery and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under the three strikes law because of that conviction. Currently, there are more than 100 people in Washington who will be able to have their cases reviewed for clemency, with the possibility of reducing or eliminating their sentences, once the legislation becomes active on July 25.
“The passing of 5164 is really a testament to the statement, ‘the majority matters,’” said Sen. Jeannie Darneille of the state’s 27th Legislative District, who sponsored the bill. “This bill was passed without any Republican support, and it’s only because of the healthy majorities that the Democrats have that we were able to move any of these three bills forward in the last three years.”
In Washington, a person is considered a “persistent offender” and must be sentenced to life in prison without parole when they are convicted of three separate three-strike offenses — also known as ”most serious offenses” — or when the person is convicted of certain sexually motivated offenses on at least two separate occasions. Second-degree robbery occurs when someone attempts to steal property from someone without a weapon and does not injure them.
“I’m glad that there’s possibility for relief now for those that weren’t directly impacted initially,” said Orlando Ames, who had a three-strikes life sentence involving second-degree robbery charges and received clemency in 2015. He’s currently the reentry director of the Freedom Project.
“There’s still a lot more to be done, a lot more work to be done, because it’s long overdue,” said Ames. “It took me over 21 years to come home due to clemency, but that’s just one option of getting out and everyone doesn’t have the option of going for clemency. So, to make this bill possible is a really great thing.”
In 1993, Washington became the first state in the nation to adopt a three strikes policy, coinciding with a period up until recent years that has seen the state’s incarceration rates double, its spending on corrections triple, and the size of its prison population quadruple, according to a 2020 report by the Washington chapter of the ACLU.
“We’ve come a long way and I think that this will result in a lot of people being able to return to their families, so I’m very excited about that,” said Darneille.
Second-degree robbery was removed from the list of three-strike offenses that qualifies someone as a persistent offender when Senate Bill 5288 was passed in 2019, but the legislation did not affect people with three-strike convictions retroactive from before the bill was enacted. With the passage of 5164 in April, second-degree robbery “shall not be considered a most serious offense regardless of whether the offense was committed before, on, or after the effective date” of July 28, 2019, when 5288 went into effect.
Another bill, 6164, that was passed in 2020, gave prosecutors more power to ask the court to reconsider a person’s sentence if their sentence no longer “advances the interests of justice.”
“There were flaws in the initiative and we’ve been attempting to fix those now for many years,” said Darneille, who chairs the state Senate’s Human Services, Reentry, and Rehabilitative Services Committee. “In the legislative world, some of the most important bills we’ve ever passed have been done so in an incremental fashion.”
When 5288 was passed in 2019, there were dozens of people serving life sentences without parole as a result of a conviction for second-degree robbery, according to a 2020 Senate bill report that discussed implementing the law retroactively.
“It is fair to look back on retroactive application of a law where we are clearly stating that it is not a strikeable offense,” said the report. “There are many individuals serving life without the possibility of parole that have turned their life around. This is a difficult path.”
Today, there are as many as 114 people across Washington, including 29 in King County, that will be affected by 5164 passing this year and will be able to have a resentencing process and have their cases reviewed, according to Darneille. Thirty-three people — such as one woman whose three strikes are all second-degree robbery convictions — have multiple strikes stemming from second-degree robbery convictions, which will all be reexamined now that 5164 has been signed into law.
Carla Lee, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office deputy chief of staff and chair of the Sentence Review Unit, said that her office has had “status hearings” with the court to prepare for the end of July, when they can officially start the process of reviewing individuals’ cases for clemency. Lee estimated that it could take until the end of fall for the majority of the 29 King County cases to be heard, but individuals actually being released, if granted clemency, could take more time.
Since 5288 was passed in 2019, nine people have had their cases reviewed and were eventually granted clemency. Of those nine people, six were white. While white people make up less than half of the 100-plus people that will be affected by this new legislation, they make up the majority of the cases that were granted clemency under prior legal frameworks that involved subjectivity on the part of the prosecuting attorneys.
“Already, we see the importance of the clemency process because it was some form of post-conviction review, but it is not ideal and I think that the demographics of the people who were able to secure clemency speak volumes,” said Darneille. “We want to have equal access to justice in our state and we can’t live with laws that have ingrained in the implementation of those laws disparity and making more inequitable systems.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
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