Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences

Russell Harvey attends his resentencing hearing via Zoom on June 3, 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of an emotional hearing on Wednesday, Russell Harvey still looked nervous. The 60-year-old sat facing a webcam in an office at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County—his beige uniform matching the empty wall behind him—as King County Superior Court Judge David Steiner signed the paperwork releasing Harvey after more than two decades in prison.

Just before Judge Steiner ended the hearing, Harvey leaned closer to the computer in front of him. “Thank you, Judge. I’m sure it was a tough decision.”

“It wasn’t,” Steiner replied.

Harvey is the second inmate in King County to be resentenced under a new Washington law that retroactively removes second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.” In 1993, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt a three-strikes policy; at the time, the measure received broad bipartisan support.

But some Washington lawmakers are now trying to correct the long-term consequences of the “tough on crime” era, including by reconsidering the state’s harsh sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes. The bill that led to Harvey’s release, sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), is only one element of the broader push to address excessive sentences, but for both incarcerated people and the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the new law is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy.

“For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released. And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way.”—Carla Lee, King County Prosecutor’s Office

Twenty-four years ago, a King County Superior Court judge sentenced Harvey to life in prison after his third arrest for second-degree robbery, which—unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter—generally doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. In the early years of his sentence, Harvey told the court, he repeatedly clashed with prison administrators and spent time in an “intensive management unit”—in other words, solitary confinement.

One of his trips to “the hole” brought him to breaking point, Harvey said. “I called my mom and I asked her what I should do,” he told the court in his opening remarks. “The disappointment in my mom’s voice—there’s no mistaking it. … She basically just hung up on me, right after she asked, ‘when are you going to learn?’ I didn’t want to be affecting people like that. That was when I hit rock bottom.” Harvey’s mental health suffered; according to his attorney, Susan Hacker, Harvey struggled through a series of “trials and errors” by prison medical staff who tried to prescribe him medication after diagnosing him with depression.

But in 2009, Harvey’s case caught the attention of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which was assembling a list of inmates serving life sentences for three-strikes offenses involving at least one second-degree robbery with the goal of bringing their cases before Washington’s clemency board. That list grew to 45 names. Nearly two dozen received clemency, but Harvey was not among them.

Then, in 2020, the state legislature passed a law giving prosecutors the discretion to request resentencing for people whose original sentences no longer serve the “interest of justice.” In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office created a sentence review unit and added Harvey’s name to a list of inmates eligible for re-sentencing. Largely because of COVID-19-related court delays, that resentencing effort also stalled, but Harvey received a third chance at release when the state legislature passed the new law that specifically affects inmates facing life in prison for three second-degree robberies.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit, told PubliCola that the newest resentencing law follows a model developed in King County since the prosecutor’s office first identified Harvey as a candidate for a reduced sentence. “For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released,” she said. “And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way. Our model has now been legislated, so other prosecutors now have to follow it.”

So far, Lee’s office is aware of 29 people in Washington Department of Corrections custody who will be eligible for resentencing under the law, including many who were already on her unit’s radar.

Harvey was scheduled to be the first person in King County resentenced under the new law, but minutes after his first hearing began on May 21, a bomb threat at the King County Courthouse forced the courtroom to evacuate, postponing his resentencing. In the interim, Lee told PubliCola, her office returned to court to support the resentencing and immediate release of an inmate with a life-threatening illness; that man, Rickey Mahaney, left the Coyote Ridge Correctional Center in Franklin County on Tuesday afternoon and moved directly to hospice care.

In addition to Harvey and Mahaney, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has requested resentencing hearings for another ten people before July 25.

Until July 25, prosecutors in Washington still aren’t required to support resentencing hearings for anyone serving a life sentence for a three-strikes offense involving second-degree robbery. But Lee’s unit is working ahead of schedule: in addition to Harvey and Mahaney, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has requested resentencing hearings for another ten people before July 25.

In her remarks to Steiner, Lee asked that Harvey’s sentence be reduced to roughly seven years, including time served. “He’s already served three times what he would face were he sentenced today,” she said. Lee also asked Steiner to reduce Harvey’s financial penalties to reflect his shorter sentence; Harvey won’t know exactly how much he owes until he’s released, though an average debt for a felony conviction is slightly less than $3,000.

Before Harvey can be released, administrators at the Department of Corrections will need to approve his release address—an apartment he will share with a friend he met while incarcerated—and other details of his re-entry. Harvey has already found a post-release job, and his counselor at the South Seattle nonprofit Community Passageways has arranged backup housing and employment, as well as ongoing mental health counseling.

But in some ways, his release will be bittersweet. “I told my mom that I’d be back to see her by Christmas of this year,” Harvey told the court. “But she passed away in January.” His father, however, is alive and attended the hearing to support his son.

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