State Considers Prison Reform Proposals with Sweeping Impacts

Sterling Jarnagin testifies before the Washington State House of Representatives’ Public Safety Committee on January 13, 2022.

By Paul Kiefer

Sterling Jarnagin testified before the Washington State House of Representative’s public safety committee on January 13 from an isolation cell at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he has spent nearly three decades in solitary confinement. The shackles used to restrain him hung limply from a chain behind his chair. Inmates held in isolation, Jarnagin told lawmakers, have no chance to prepare for their release, little access to education, and few chances for meaningful mental health treatment.

People who have spent years in solitary “leave and go into communities angry and hostile,” he said, “without the skills we need to succeed.”

Janargin, who is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a Yakima restaurant manager during a robbery in 1991, was one of nine people who have spent time in solitary confinement in Washington prisons who testified in support of a bill that would require the state’s Department of Corrections to phase out long-term isolation by next year. The bill is one of several prison reform bills that could cut years from hundreds of inmates’ sentences, release hundreds more from solitary confinement, and reduce or wipe away debts for thousands of currently and formerly incarcerated people.

The proposal to eliminate long-term solitary confinement, sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), comes on the heels of the DOC’s announcement last fall that it would no longer use solitary confinement to punish inmates for breaking prison rules, a practice known as “disciplinary segregation.” Peterson’s bill would target so-called “administrative segregation,” or the use of solitary confinement to hold people who prison administrators believe pose a threat to themselves or others, or who they believe would be in danger if they lived among other inmates. According to DOC Secretary Sheryl Strange, Washington currently has 586 people in solitary confinement, down from 1,100 a decade ago.

Peterson’s bill would only allow the DOC to place inmates in solitary confinement under narrow circumstances, including for emergencies—such as violent outbursts—and medical isolation or quarantine. The bill would set even stricter rules for when the DOC can confine people with significant disabilities, including serious mental illness, who could only be placed in isolation for medical reasons.

“I was in work release working at Burger King making $9 or $10 an hour, and the county was garnishing my paycheck to cover my court fines and fees. A debt like that can make it hard to get housing.”—State Rep. Tarra Simmons

Testifying before lawmakers two weeks ago, Strange said that while she supports the bill “in spirit” and would like to see the state invest more money in alternatives to solitary confinement like inpatient mental health care, she does not believe that it would be safe to “turn off a light switch” and end solitary confinement on a short deadline.

The bill would also end the practice of isolating some inmates who guards believe could be vulnerable because of their race, nationality, gender or sexuality. That detail is particularly important to Casey Quinn, an inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County, who told PubliCola that he spent nearly two and a half years in solitary confinement at another prison because guards believed that he would be at risk of assault by male inmates because he is intersex. “[Being in solitary confinement] made me feel like I had done something wrong,” he said.

Republican members of the public safety committee echoed Strange’s concerns that phasing out solitary confinement within a year would present a safety risk to both prison staff and other incarcerated people. The bill’s supporters range from civil liberties groups like Disability Rights Washington to the Washington State Catholic Conference, whose spokesman, Mario Villanueva, called solitary confinement a form of “torture.”

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bainbridge Island) has introduced a bill that would allow judges to reduce or waive many of the fines imposed on people convicted of crimes, which she says would free thousands of current and formerly incarcerated people in Washington from debts that make it difficult for people to find their footing after leaving prison. The bill targets fines, filing fees, and the restitution debts imposed by courts as part of criminal convictions, which come with a steep interest rate that accrues while a person is in prison.

The bill would allow judges to waive interest requirements for low-income defendants and prohibit courts from requiring restitution payments after 10 years unless the court finds that a defendant willfully did not pay off their debts.

The bill is personal to Simmons, Washington’s first formerly incarcerated state lawmaker. When she left prison in 2013 after serving two years for drug and theft charges, Simmons says she would have been more prepared if she could have petitioned to have her debts waived before her release. “I was in work release working at Burger King making $9 or $10 an hour, and the county was garnishing my paycheck to cover my court fines and fees,” she said. “A debt like that can make it hard to get housing.”

The legislation would also help Karen Peacey, a Snohomish County resident who owed $249,000 when she was released from prison in 2011 after serving time for a theft charge. Peacey, who has multiple sclerosis and receives disability payments, told PubliCola that she’s struggled to keep up with her court fines in the decade since her release. At one point, she missed two months of payments and narrowly avoided arrest by asking her daughter for help. “It’s hard to figure out what you’re going to do with your life and where you’re going to live with the constant burden of debt over your head,” she said. If the bill passes, Peacey could be relieved of her remaining debts.

Some inmates serve more time for gun enhancements than they do for their underlying felonies. Goodman’s bill would allow judges to impose concurrent, instead of consecutive, gun enhancements if they decide that adding years or decades to a person’s sentence is inappropriate.

Opponents of the bill, including groups that represent law enforcement, prosecutors and collections agencies, argued that it would allow defendants to pay the bare minimum and “wait out the clock” until their debts disappear in 10 years. Opponents also argue that judges can’t know whether a person will be able to pay their debts until after their release, so it would be unreasonable to let them petition for debt relief before they get out of prison.

A third bill, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), would change the way Washington courts punish people for carrying a weapon while committing a crime. Under current law, judges are required to add between 18 months and 5 years to a defendant’s sentence if they were carrying a gun while committing a felony. If a defendant faces more than one weapons charge—if they robbed a gas station at gunpoint and threatened two people, rather than one, for instance—Washington’s mandatory sentencing laws require courts to “stack” the additional “enhancements,” meaning that the defendant would serve two consecutive 5-year sentences for the gun before they begin serving time for the robbery itself. Some inmates serve more time for gun enhancements than they do for their underlying felonies.

Goodman’s bill would allow judges to impose concurrent, instead of consecutive, gun enhancements if they decide that adding years or decades to a person’s sentence is inappropriate. It would apply retroactively, allowing judges to resentence people who are currently in prison.

Washington’s weapons enhancements laws, Goodman said, are one of the main drivers of racial disparities in prison sentences in Washington. “These laws were put on the books in the 1990s during the tough-on-crime era,” he said. According to data from the DOC, nearly one-third of the 955 people in Washington prisons with more than one weapons enhancement are Black, compared to the roughly 20 percent of Washington’s prison population that is Black.

Goodman’s bill has drawn some opposition from the association representing Washington’s counties, who argue that creating a new slate of resentencing hearings for their courts and prosecutors could be costly. Last year, the State Supreme Court ruled the state’s felony drug laws unconstitutional and directed courts to resentence anyone serving prison time for a drug conviction, which has created a backlog in many county courts. A version of the bill introduced last year had the support of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. The King County Prosecutor’s Office has been an eager participant in the state’s resentencing efforts: the office took part in 24 resentencing hearings in 2021.