MYNORTHWEST POLITICS

Inmates can seek to leave prison sooner under Wash. House-passed bill

Feb 14, 2024, 5:00 AM

Image: This photo shows outside the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton....

This photo shows outside the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Corrections website)

(Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Corrections website)

A deeply divided Washington House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill giving convicted felons an easier path out of prison without relying on the governor’s decision to commute their sentence.

House Bill 2001 (HB 2001) largely passed along a party-line vote of 51-46 in one of the tightest votes this legislative session. (A PDF of the substitute bill can be viewed here.)

But there were some exceptions as seven Democratic representatives — Bronske, Champman, Leavitt, Paull, Rule, Shavers, and Timmons — joined all House Republicans in voting against the bill. One lawmaker was excused from voting.

All serious crimes including rape of any kind, armed robbery, kidnapping, and felony assault are eligible for resentencing. However, those convicted of aggravated murder in the first degree are not.

The bill establishes a process for certain persons convicted of a felony to petition the court for a modification of their original sentence.

It requires the Washington State Department of Corrections to notify the inmate that they may be eligible to ask for resentencing. The person then must meet certain conditions to advance in the process.

The person must have served at least 10 years for an offense committed the age of 18 or older or at least seven years for an offense committed at age of 17 or younger. The person also must have the prosecuting attorney’s consent to ask for resentencing.

Key to the legislation is its intent: Reversing the original sentence if it “no longer serves the interests of justice and the person.”

Supporters of HB 2001 voice their case

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton, who often speaks about her time in prison, says people who have made mistakes deserve a second chance.

“No matter what anyone says today, I know in my heart that this bill is a beautiful and healing masterpiece,” she said.

Proponents of the bill argued during committee hearings for its necessity, citing the deep-seated inequities and injustices entrenched within the current system.

“The state imposes egregiously long sentences that cause generational trauma,” they assert. “This bill is not about letting out convicts; it is about letting out fathers, brothers, and other individuals who have undergone genuine rehabilitation and are eager to contribute positively to society.”

Central to their argument is the acknowledgment of systemic racial disparities, with a recognition that people of color serve disproportionately longer sentences.

Supporters also see the bill as a beacon of hope to combat “egregiously long sentences that cause generational trauma.”

Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, who has worked with incarcerated people, noted some people have reformed in prison and the bill provides them a second chance.

“I believe people can change because I’ve seen it. I cannot support the continued incarceration of these individuals who are deserving of mercy, not because it’s automatic, but because they’ve earned it,” Davis said.

Opposition to HB 2001

However, not everyone is convinced of the bill’s merits.

Opposition voices raise concerns about the potential expansion of judicial power and the practical challenges of implementation.

Prisoners often are granted early release based on good conduct while in prison. Sometimes that shortens their sentence by one-third.

But the power to shorten a sentence or excuse it outright has always resided with the governor. The bill would give Superior Court judges the power to nearly do the same.

“I don’t believe we all get a redo in life, and I don’t believe this bill is fair to the victims of the crime,” Rep. Leonard Christian, R-Spokane Valley, said.

Nearly all of the floor speeches during the 45-minute debate leading up to the House vote were delivered by Republicans opposing the bill.

“We expect if you disobey the laws and cause harm to another person and our community, there is a cost. This bill reverses those costs. That is a cost too high for our society to pay,” Rep. Spencer Hutchins, R-Gig Harbor, said.

Several speeches focused on retraumatize the victim if the resentencing process were to begin in court.

An independent analysis by legislative staff estimated the initial cost to the state for resentencing is $20 million. Republicans like Rep. Gina Mosbrucker of Goldendale argued courts are already backed up because of mandatory resentencing of drug crimes the legislature required last year and the backlog of cases because of COVID-19.

“We are short prosecutors, we are short defense attorneys, and we are hearing from the clerks, they are saying can you do something because we just can’t process everything,” Mosbrucker said.

The bill heads to the Senate next.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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