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Non-violent robbery no longer subject to three strikes law

The Washington State Legislature has passed a bill to remove the crime of second-degree robbery from the list of crimes subject to the three strikes law, which comes with an automatic life sentence.

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Washington passed the first of its kind law in 1993, removing judicial discretion for the third offense in certain major crimes, including second-degree robbery, which is taking someone’s property without inflicting harm on them.

In 2001, the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission recommended removing the charge from the three strikes list, and lawmakers have been introducing legislation to get it taken off every year since.

This year, they finally got the bill across the finish line, and off to the governor.

“During the ‘tough on crime’ era, our justice system became excessively punitive, and we have filled our prisons on the misguided belief that harsh punishment is an effective deterrent to criminal activity,” said bill sponsor Jeannie Darneille, who also serves as Chair of the Senate Human Services, Reentry and Rehabilitation Committee.

“The ‘three strikes’ initiative promised to put away the ‘worst of the worst,’ but instead deepened the inequities in our corrections system,” Darnielle added in a statement. “The resulting mass incarceration disproportionately impacted and severely damaged communities of color. Today, with this legislation, we continue the work of reorienting our system toward its fundamental intent: Justice.”

The bill had previously passed the Senate, and passed the House Tuesday largely along party lines, with strong opposition from Republicans.

“This bill runs against the clear message to offenders in this state that what they do is wrong, and this bill enables bad instincts and outcomes,” Republican Rep. Jim Walsh said ahead of the vote in the House.

As an example:

“Three days ago, Sheriff’s Deputy Justin DeRosier of Cowlitz County was shot dead. The individual who killed the deputy had a checkered legal past … had been arrested nine times in less than five years, and the first charge — the first of those nine arrests — [was] robbery in the second degree,” Walsh explained.

If the governor signs the bill into law, it would remove the mandatory life in prison sentence for third-strike, second-degree robbery offenders, but it does not allow such offenders already serving life to petition the court for a new sentence.

There was an effort to add a provision to the bill to create a pathway for those already serving life to reduce their sentences, but it failed.

However, Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman says this law will have important implications when it comes to clemency and pardons.

“There are 62 people right now in prison who have at least one second degree robbery conviction on their record, and they are in prison for life,” Goodman said.

“However, the Clemency and Pardons Board and a lot of the local prosecutors have made it a priority to take a look at those individuals, and see whether they can recommend to the governor or pardon them because of the fact that their offenses were less serious than the other three strikers,” Goodman continued, adding that many of those 62 three strikers were already in the pipeline to be considered for clemency or a pardon by the governor.

“By passing this bill and making a statement that robbery in the second degree really doesn’t belong on the strike list, that will give a stronger argument for prosecutors and defenders who are advocating that some of the three strikers get clemency, or a pardon from the governor,” Goodman said.

“We are not releasing anyone from prison, we are not re-sentencing anyone, and yet on a case-by-case basis, some of those who are in prison now for life will be able to apply for clemency or a pardon from the governor with sort of an increased strength of their argument that robbery 2 really doesn’t fit with the other strike crimes,” Goodman added.

Goodman stressed that it is not that second-degree robbery is not a serious crime, just not as serious as the other three strike crimes, such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and others, and that there should be differences in sentencing to reflect the differences in the level of seriousness of all those crimes.

He says this also about justice equality.

“The three strikers — those who are on prison for life having been convicted under the three strikes law — 40 percent of them are African-American,” Goodman explained.

“Our state’s population of African-Americans is 3 percent, so it is a huge disparity in those that have been convicted under this law,” Goodman added. “That shows that we need to bring a little bit more justice to the justice system.”

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