WA Supreme Court hears case arguing for release of thousands of inmates

Apr 23, 2020, 12:46 PM | Updated: 4:31 pm

UPDATE: In a 5-4 ruling, the Washington State Supreme Court has denied a motion to release thousands of inmates from state prisons, including many dangerous offenders. Read more here. 

The Washington State Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday concerning whether thousands of inmates should be released from prison to protect them from the coronavirus.

Rantz: Activists demand we release murderers in coronavirus prisoner plan

The Attorney General’s office and victims have expressed concern that it would mean some of the state’s most dangerous people will be back on the streets. Tonya Fenton tells KTTH’s Jason Rantz that could include Isaac Zamora, who killed six people, including her mom back in 2008.

The state AG’s office estimates that under the broadest interpretation of the petition, about 12,000 inmates could be eligible for release.

That would include the release of any inmate over 50 years old, anyone with an underlying health condition, or anyone with 18 months or less left on their sentence. Under those guidelines, that could also include serial killers, like Green River Killer Gary Ridgway.

Petitioners filing the case, though, argue that the state would be able to exercise discretion to prevent inmates like Ridgway from being released.

“We’ve never taken the position that every single one of the people who fall within one of those categories should be released,” said Nick Straley, representing five inmates asking the court to grant them an early release. “I think (the state) would be readily available to identify groups of people that can be released without a lot of concern.”

Straley pointed to at least 3,400 current inmates whose release wouldn’t require a victim notification. For others that do, he acknowledged that “there are going to be situations where people shouldn’t be released.”

The state’s case against releasing more inmates was largely rooted in the argument that prisons have already taken appropriate measures, including a previous release of inmates with scheduled release dates in June.

‘Strong evidence’ social distancing is working in Washington

“As of this coming weekend, the prison population will drop down below 16,000,” said John Samson, representing Gov. Inslee’s office, qualifying the state’s previous reduction as “enough under the current circumstances.”

“The fact that they’re releasing people indicates they know that it’s dangerous inside the prisons,” Straley countered.

Samson went on to point out that with the newly-reduced prison population, the Monroe Correctional Facility’s minimum security unit will be able to guarantee six feet of social distancing by the weekend.

While noting that “six-foot social distancing is not constitutionally required,” he also promised that the state “will do as much as possible to strive to provide that distancing to all prisoners.”

Instead of releasing more prisoners — at least in the short term — Samson proposed continued fixes to conditions inside of prisons.

“If those are un-constitutional conditions, the remedy isn’t release from confinement — the remedy is to fix those un-constitutional conditions,” he posited.

With arguments on both sides concluded, the court will deliberate on a final decision in the days ahead.

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WA Supreme Court hears case arguing for release of thousands of inmates