Lawmakers, judges, prisoners seek resentencing reform amid victim concerns

May 31, 2024, 4:30 AM | Updated: Jun 4, 2024, 10:39 am

Image: The Washington State Capitol building is seen on the first day of the legislative session in...

The Washington State Capitol building is seen on the first day of the legislative session in Olympia, on Jan. 8, 2024. (File photo: Lindsey Wasson, AP)

(File photo: Lindsey Wasson, AP)

An organized effort by some lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and prisoners to shorten the sentences of about 6,000 people in prison has emerged. This resentencing reform effort arises as victims of violent crime argue the proposed state law does not take their healing into consideration and would reopen old wounds.

At the heart of the effort are SB 6037 and its companion bill HB 2001, which were the centerpiece of a legislative workshop held on Bainbridge Island Thursday.

The bills call for anyone serving time for any felony crime, except aggravated first-degree murder on a third strike conviction, to ask for a resentencing 10 years into their prison term.

If a resentencing ends in a judge’s denial, the incarcerated felon can continue to petition the court for a resentencing hearing every three years thereafter.

Juveniles who committed their crime when they were 17 years old or younger can petition the court for a resentencing hearing seven years into their prison term, and if denied, can petition the court for a resentencing hearing every three years as well.

HB 2001 is sponsored by Kitsap County Democratic Rep. Tarra Simmons, the state’s first formerly incarcerated lawmaker. Before entering politics, she was sentenced to 30 months in prison for a drug offense.

The bill passed the Washington House of Representatives 51-46 on Feb. 13, but it did not get a hearing in the Senate. Its companion bill, SB 6037, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Noel Frame, never got a hearing in a Senate committee.

The resentencing issue remains active

The issue of resentencing is not dead yet; in fact, it is very much alive.

Washington Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairwoman Democratic Sen. Manka Dhingra called the special workshop in Simmons’ home district with a panel of people with lived experience and experts that was slanted in favor of the resentencing bills.

Dhingra’s counterpart in the House and Chairman of the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee, Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman, has introduced HB 2504, which is an overhaul of the sentencing guidelines judges are required to follow. The new guidelines reflect efforts to eliminate extra-long-term prison sentences.

The Washington Supreme Court is holding its own symposium titled “A Legacy of Harm: Examining the Impacts of our Sentencing Paradigm.”

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Kimonti Carter: ‘(The judge) didn’t make a wrong decision’

One of the star witnesses who provided testimony at Thursday’s workshop was Kimonti Carter, convicted of aggravated murder for killing an innocent person in a drive-by shooting in 1998 when he was 17.

He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 2021, the State Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for a defendant under 20 years at the time of the crime is unconstitutional because the court in 1998 did not consider the mitigating qualities of “youthfulness.”

Carter applied for resentencing and was given a reduced sentence of 25 years.

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The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office asked the Washington Supreme Court to reconsider the reduced sentencing, saying the judge’s decision was arbitrary because state lawmakers had not set up sentencing guidelines for someone in Carter’s situation. The high court disagreed.

Goodman’s HB 2504, which will be debated during the 2025 legislative session, will go a long way in addressing the resentencing issue Carter faced.

“He didn’t make a wrong decision,” Carter said about the judge who lowered his sentence. “I’m now in a community helping people who have the potential of committing other violent offenses.”

He was one of the people testifying in favor of the resentencing bill, saying it can give hope to people who are facing a near lifetime behind bars and have been working hard to reform themselves.

“I sit with you here today as an example that these things can transpire even in the most devastating circumstances,” Carter said.

Other resentencing advocates speak out

The Senate committee heard from advocates supporting the ability to ask for a resentencing after 10 years and every three years thereafter if one is not granted.

“I’ve heard the words, ‘I forgive you.’ by survivors in my case. I am rehabilitated, but I still have two more decades to serve,” Charles Longshore testified remotely from prison. In 2014, Longshore was convicted of two counts of murder. He was 22 at the time of the crime and is currently serving a term of 38 1/2 years.

“There comes a point where we’ve become stagnant and all we do is exist until or if we are ever released. I’m just one of many people in this position,” he said.

Travis Comeslast also testified from prison in favor of the bills, something he has done many times before. He co-wrote HB 2001 with Simmons.

He was 21 in 1997 when he was convicted of murder and first-degree armed robbery in Spokane. Comeslast had been convicted of six felony crimes starting at age 13.

“This bill recognizes the value of mercy and rehabilitation for incarcerated people who no longer are a danger to the community,” Comeslast told the committee. “Unfortunately, without passing such legislation there is no meaningful relief for us.”

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Sexual assault victim advocates seek additional protection

But advocates for sexual assault survivors are asking for a carve-out, just as there is for aggravated murder, for crimes such as rape and sexual assault.

“Resentencing hearings are often very traumatic for victims. They have expressed the importance of finality; resentencing’s provide no sense of finality,” Judge Kristin Ferrera of the Washington State Superior Court Judges’ Association said. She estimates the bills could affect 6,000 cases of people now in prison.

A sexual assault survivor who used the pseudonym Lynee told the committee of her own experience testifying about her own encounter when her assailant was accused of raping a 10-year-old girl.

“Most assault victims break open old wounds in order to respond to an offender’s petition for early release,” she said. “We must not heap more wrongs upon innocent survivors who deserve to be free of their perpetrators.”

State lawmakers are not allowed to take action on any meeting outside of the legislative session. Holding a workshop months before the session begins is a way lawmakers can drum up support for their legislation.

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, or email him here.

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Lawmakers, judges, prisoners seek resentencing reform amid victim concerns