By Paul Kiefer
The Washington State Supreme Court’s decision in February that voided the state’s existing drug possession laws—a decision known as State of Washington v. Blake—has drawn considerable attention; the ruling requires judges across the state to review and correct the sentences of people charged with drug-related offenses.
But a wave of resentencing hearings unrelated to Blake is also looming on the horizon for courts statewide.
Lawmakers in Olympia have discussed ways to fix excessive sentencing repeatedly over the past decade, with a particular focus on Washington’s three-strikes law, a state statute that imposes a life sentence without the possibility of parole for so-called “persistent offenders.”
In early April, state lawmakers passed legislation, originally sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), that requires judges to resentence anyone facing life in prison under Washington’s three-strikes law if one of their “strikes” was a second-degree robbery charge. Such charges generally do not involve a weapon or injuring a victim, in contrast to other “strike” offenses like rape and manslaughter. The law directs judges to base the new sentence on the final “strike” on the defendant’s record.
“They always say wheels of justice turn slow,” said Orlando Ames, one of the nine people charged for a three-strikes violation and released by the state’s clemency board. “But this has been almost a dead stop.”
“Robbery two… was just not like the others, and certainly not not consistent with the initiative’s goal to place behind bars for life any person who had been a persistent, violent and violent offender in the state,” said Sen. Darnielle during an online press conference on Wednesday.
Sen. Darnielle said that her office has identified 114 people across Washington who will be re-sentenced as a result of the new law—just under half of the 277 people currently serving life sentences as a result of the three-strikes law. Carla Lee, who leads the King County Prosecutors’ Office’s sentence review unit, said during Wednesday’s press conference that she’s aware of 29 people in King County who are now eligible for re-sentencing.
Washington voters passed the three-strikes law by initiative in 1993, making the state the first in the nation to adopt such a law. At the time, proponents promised that the new law would dramatically reduce the state’s crime rate. “Everyone knows that the three-strikes initiative passed with overwhelming public support,” said Darnielle. “And many other states followed in our path. But it’s proven itself to be very racially disproportionate, and it demonstrates some of the real inadequacies in our justice system.” More than a third of those sentenced under Washington’s three-strikes law since 1993 have been Black, though the state’s population is less than 5% Black. Of the 114 people eligible for resentencing, 53 are Black.
Darnielle also noted that the previous avenues for redressing excessive sentences have had biased results. Washington’s Clemency and Pardons Board, for instance, has cleared the sentences of nine people sentenced to life in prison for a three-strikes violation; of those, six were white.
Darnielle hopes that the passage of a new law guaranteeing resentencing for a substantial number of the people impacted by Washington’s three-strikes law will eliminate opportunities for bias. She also hopes that it will close some of the holes in past efforts by lawmakers to open opportunities for resentencing.
According to Darnielle, the new law is a “cleaned-up” version of legislation that passed last year that first removed second-degree robbery from the list of “strike” offenses—which, in order to receive buy-in from prosecutors, didn’t apply the new standard retroactively. But according to Darnielle and Lee, the law also steps beyond past legislation by limiting judges’ and prosecutors’ leeway to stand in the way of resentencing.
In contrast, another key resentencing bill that passed during last year’s legislative session gave prosecutors the discretion to decide who qualified for resentencing. That law, originally sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), allowed prosecutors to petition judges to revisit sentences that “no longer advance the interests of justice.” But according to Darnielle, “once the boots got on the ground and started to try to implement [the law], there were prosecutors who did not want to implement it.” Lee added that COVID-related delays in larger counties also stalled the review process.
As a result, Darnielle acknowledged, far fewer people received resentencing hearings than lawmakers initially intended. PubliCola has reached out to all of the 39 prosecutor’s offices in Washington to determine the exact number of people resentenced as a result of last year’s law. Most small counties, like Skamania County in southwest Washington, haven’t resentenced anyone in response to last year’s bill; Kitsap County has resentenced two people, and King County is still processing the cases of people who may be eligible for resentencing.
Meanwhile, inmates who hoped a prosecutor would review their case last year have been frustrated by the delays. “They always say wheels of justice turn slow,” said Orlando Ames, one of the nine people charged for a three-strikes violation and released by the state’s clemency board. “But this has been almost a dead stop. When you’re on the other side, you’re looking for any semblance of hope that things continue to move things forward. And usually, all you can do is hurry up and wait.”
From Darnielle’s perspective, the new law will force prosecutor’s hands in many cases they’ve neglected since last year. According to Lee, the list of inmates whose sentences her office began to reconsider last year mostly overlaps with the list of 29 inmates who will receive resentencing hearings because of the new law. Once her office finishes the intake process for those inmates, she estimates they will receive new sentences within 60 to 90 days.