Category: criminal justice

Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz (Photo: Paul Kiefer, PubliCola News)

By Paul Kiefer

By next summer, Seattle’s emergency call dispatchers may have a new crisis response team at their disposal. The new unit, called Triage One, would be housed within the Seattle Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health program and tasked with responding to some crisis calls that don’t clearly involve a medical emergency or criminal activity.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan debuted the proposal at a press conference on Friday morning alongside Councilmember Lisa Herbold and the heads of the Seattle Police and Fire Departments, and the newly created Communications and Community Safety Center (CSCC).

The goal of the Triage One team, said Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, is to reduce the city’s reliance on police officers as the default crisis responders. Diaz pointed to “person down” calls—calls about people either asleep or unconscious in public—as an example; at the moment, SPD treats those calls as high-priority, which involves dispatching at least two officers to respond as quickly as possible.

Durkan said the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours.

“But a majority of ‘person down’ calls are because someone’s experiencing addiction or a health crisis, and when SPD responds, officers still need to call another agency [for a more appropriate response],” Diaz said. Instead, the city could rely on an unarmed team to respond to those non-criminal emergencies and call for medical assistance, police backup, caseworkers, or other responders after taking stock of the situation.

Triage One would rely heavily on Seattle’s 911 dispatch center, which is now part of the CSCC. According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, the unit would function as an extension of the dispatch center itself. “911 has always been in a pinch to, in a minute to 90 seconds, decide what’s happening and how to deploy resources to help,” he said. “We see the Triage One system as a way to extend the time available to figure out how to get someone [in crisis] the services they need.” Meanwhile, the CSCC is developing a standardized list of questions for dispatchers to ask 911 callers, ostensibly to streamline emergency calls.

At the moment, the program is still only theoretical; the details of the Triage One team, including its size, makeup, and cost, won’t be resolved until the project receives approval and funding from the city council, Durkan said. She added that the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours. Continue reading “Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team”

In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed

A portrait of Charleena Lyles on Capitol Hill in June 2020 (Flickr: Derek Simeone; reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the families of people killed by police officers in a unanimous decision Thursday, restoring reforms to King County’s inquest process that have stalled since 2018 under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

The ruling brings a close to a lawsuit filed against King County Executive Dow Constantine last year by the families of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Charleena Lyles and seven other people killed by law enforcement officers in the county in 2017. It also opens the door for inquests—a type of fact-finding hearing in which a jury reviews the details of a death and decides who is responsible—to resume in King County after a four-year hiatus. 

Tiffany Rogers, Charleena Lyles’s sister, told PubliCola the four-year legal battle was exhausting for her and other family members of people killed by police. “It was painful, and it was painful for a long time, but we’re doing this so that other families don’t have to,” she said.

King County first overhauled its inquest process in 2018, when, under pressure from police accountability groups, Constantine implemented a slate of changes intended to improve transparency and give victims’ families a say in what information inquest juries hear. The changes allowed attorneys representing victims’ families to take part in inquest hearings for the first time and empowered juries to determine not only what happened in a police shooting, but whether the officers involved complied with their department’s policies and training.

In the ruling, the court concluded that all of the reforms supported by the families, including the changes introduced in 2018 and the reforms the families sought in their lawsuit, can move forward. In fact, the court noted that state law not only allows, but requires, inquest juries to consider whether an officer committed a crime.

Before announcing the reforms, Constantine had placed a hold on three pending inquests into the deaths of Butts, Obet, and Lyles. But when reforms took effect and the county began preparing to start the three inquests, a problem emerged: Under the executive order, the officers’ attorneys couldn’t participate if the officers themselves refused to testify. When the officers involved in Butts’ death declined to testify, the inquest couldn’t move forward.

The families filed a lawsuit in 2020, hoping to fill the gap in Constantine’s reforms by compelling the officers to testify. The families also called for another change to inquest procedures: allowing jurors to consider whether the officers involved in a shooting broke the law. “The inquest can be a useful tool to investigate police killings of community members, but the panel must answer whether the officer committed a crime for the process to have any teeth,” said Amy Parker, an attorney with King County’s Department of Public Defense who represented Obet’s family.

Meanwhile, several law enforcement agencies—the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments in Auburn, Renton, Kent and Federal Way—also sued Constantine, aiming to invalidate all of the recent changes to the inquest process. According to the agencies’ attorneys, the inquest reforms already underway in King County would put police officers at a serious disadvantage when facing a jury. The lawsuits forced the county to suspend the new reforms and put a stay on any new or ongoing inquests.

When the case came before King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector in July 2020, the law enforcement agencies prevailed; Spector ruled that Constantine’s reforms threatened officers’ rights to counsel and struck down most of the changes to the inquest process. By that point, SPD had backed out of the lawsuit under pressure from members of the city council and the public, leaving the other agencies to carry on the suit.

The state supreme court entirely reversed the course of the case on Thursday, dismissing Judge Spector’s ruling as “wrong as a matter of law.” Continue reading “In Victory for Families of People Killed by Police, State Supreme Court Allows Inquest Reforms to Proceed”

Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Flickr: Brewbrooks; Reproduced with a Creative Commons License)

1. The Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted out the latest version of legislation limiting the Seattle Police Department’s use of ‘less-lethal weapons’ on Tuesday, sending the embattled bill to the full council with a ‘do pass’ recommendation. If adopted, the bill would prohibit SPD from using five ‘less-lethal’ weapons, including blast balls, and place new restrictions on officers’ use of tear gas, pepper-ball launchers and pepper spray.

Last summer, the council passed an ordinance that would have prohibited police officers from using tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other ‘less-lethal’ weapons for crowd control.

After the US Department of Justice warned that the bill might lead officers to resort to more serious uses of force to control protests, Federal District Court Judge James Robart—who oversees reforms to SPD as part of an ongoing agreement between the US Department of Justice and the city of Seattle known as the consent decree—issued a temporary restraining order preventing it from taking effect. The version of the bill that passed on Tuesday reflects months of input from Seattle’s police oversight bodies, the DOJ, and the monitoring team appointed by Judge Robart to act as the eyes and ears of the consent decree.

Responding to the monitoring team’s concerns that the original bill would prevent officers from targeting small groups of people committing acts of violence at protests, the new bill outright bans less-targeted weapons such as blast balls and ultrasonic cannons while allowing officers to use more targeted weapons against individual people. The ordinance would also allow SPD to use pepper spray and tear gas to move crowds when twelve or more people in the crowd are engaging in violence—a legal standard that SPD might be able to skirt because of the difficulties of measuring the scale of violence within a crowd after the fact.

Although the committee voted to send the bill to the full council, that won’t happen immediately. Instead, Herbold opted to wait for the results of a hearing before Judge Robart on August 10 to review Seattle’s compliance with the consent decree, giving the council an opportunity for the council to hear more feedback on the bill.

2. Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO), the oversight agency for the state’s Department of Corrections, issued a brief report on Tuesday describing conditions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County during the record-breaking heat wave two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the DOC is also preparing to address Washington’s falling prison population—4,000 empty beds statewide, and a more than 50 percent decline in new prisoners since last year—by closing some units.

An OCO staffer who visited the prison on June 28 found substantial differences between conditions in the four different units they visited. In the prison’s Intensive Management Unit, temperatures in hallways remained below 80 degrees; in contrast, the investigator, Matthias Gydé, found cells in the Twin Rivers Unit, which houses more than 800 people, in which some surfaces reached nearly 100 degrees.

The unit-to-unit variations in temperature were partially the result of inconsistent cooling systems across the prison system. The Intensive Management Unit is outfitted with an HVAC system, whereas the Twin Rivers Unit relies on a vent that pumps air from the building’s roof to cool its common areas and cells. Gydé also noted that the Twin Rivers Unit’s skylights and cell windows contributed to the high temperatures. The DOC relaxed rules to allow inmates to cover their windows, but the skylights in the building’s common areas remained uncovered during the heat wave. Continue reading “Public Safety Fizz: “Less-Lethal” Weapons Restrictions Move Forward, Heat Wave’s Impact on Prisons Examined, County Searches for New Police Oversight Head”

Investigation of Work Release Centers Spurs Some Changes, But Advocates Proceed with Caution

Washington Department of Corrections Work Release Center in Pioneer Square (Google Street View)

By Paul Kiefer

Last Friday, Washington’s Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO) released the final recommendations from a nearly two-year-long review of the state’s work release program that found an alarming pattern of retaliation and arbitrary discipline by contract staff at work release centers across the state.

Work release centers are housing facilities for people in DOC custody; residents stay for less than a year, transitioning back into normal life by working civilian jobs, visiting family members, and attending counseling sessions.

Since the state legislature created the OCO as the oversight agency for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2018, the office has repeatedly investigated allegations about work release staffers responding to criticism or complaints by returning residents to prison for minor rule violations.

In 2018, a resident at a work release facility in Spokane attempted to file a sexual assault and harassment complaint against a guard, only to be arrested and returned to prison for allegedly threatening her harasser—an allegation that the OCO later called “hearsay.” In 2019, staff at a work release center in Beacon Hill allegedly conspired to return a resident to prison after she criticized the work release program during a meeting with DOC administrators. And in 2020, an OCO investigation concluded that staff members at a work release center in Pioneer Square may have sent a resident back to prison in retaliation for a protest by his family members outside the center.

“When people leave for work, to ride a bus, to buy clothes… they’re all terrified. They’re all scared to death that they’re going to mess up something tiny and get sent back to prison.”—Prisoners’ rights advocate Melody Simle

Many other incidents of alleged retaliation by work release administrators flew further under the radar. One work release resident returned to prison after staffers found a small drill bit, which she said belonged to her boyfriend, in her backpack; in other cases, work release staff disciplined residents for returning to their centers late after missing a bus.

“Those centers are supposed to be a bridge back into society,” said Melody Simle, a prisoners’ rights advocate whose brother spent time in a Snohomish County work release center. “But instead, the centers have been really focused on punishing people for the smallest things. In the two years I’ve been doing this work, the number one complaint is that when people leave for work, to ride a bus, to buy clothes… they’re all terrified. They’re all scared to death that they’re going to mess up something tiny and get sent back to prison.”

And a negative experience in work release can be the difference between thriving on the outside and repeatedly returning to jail, said Milo Burshaine, who recently left a work release center in Seattle. “Work release can make or break you,” he said. “If someone’s going to do well on the outside, it’s important that work release staff pay attention to their needs—to their mental health, to their stress. A work release that’s too punitive doesn’t help someone adjust to independence.”

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In response to advocacy from incarcerated people and their families, OCO Director Joanna Carnes asked the department to convene a work group in 2020 to discuss short- and long-term changes to the department’s work release program. Most of the work group’s members were DOC staff, including the department’s Assistant Secretary for Re-Entry, Danielle Armbruster. The group didn’t include staff from the work release centers named in complaints about retaliation.

The group also did not include any formerly incarcerated members, though it did include two people whose relatives had spent time in work release centers—including Simle, who helped organize meetings with residents at work release centers in Seattle and Tacoma to gather feedback.

Because the work group wasn’t tethered to a particular misconduct complaint, its focus quickly expanded well beyond the issue of retaliation. For example, the OCO report recommends work release residents receive consistent internet access and orientation packets. The work group also provided an opportunity to push through longstanding changes to the work release system, including an agreement by the DOC to allow residents at work release facilities statewide to have personal cars to commute to and from their jobs; previously, residents at work release centers in Seattle and some other cities could only commute by public transit.

But arbitrary or excessive discipline in work release centers remained at the core of the work group’s conversations. Drawing from those discussions, the OCO recommended that DOC create a standardized training for staff members who preside over disciplinary hearings; that incarcerated people accused of breaking work release rules receive copies of the evidence against them; and that the DOC identify less-severe alternatives to returning people to prison for minor slip-ups. Continue reading “Investigation of Work Release Centers Spurs Some Changes, But Advocates Proceed with Caution”

Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat

Entrance to the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Credit: Washington Department of Corrections)

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday morning, Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) staff covered part of a window at the entrance of the Twin Rivers Unit (TRU) at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County in an attempt to lower the heat inside on a day when outside temperatures peaked at 82 degrees.

But people incarcerated in the TRU say they spent the worst of the past week’s heat wave—including a high of 111 degrees in Monroe on Monday—in sweltering cells with no air conditioning and few chances to cool down, while prison staff had access to air-conditioned offices when temperatures rose into the triple digits.

The newly covered window, they said, was too little, too late. But few of those living in the unit are confident that prison administrators are planning ahead for another heat wave. “These are only going to get more common,” said David, a prisoner in the TRU who spoke with PubliCola on Wednesday. “And it’s pretty clear that [the DOC] won’t be prepared for the next one.” (PubliCola is using David’s first name only to reduce the risk of retaliation).

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According to DOC Communications Director Jacque Coe, only a handful of units in the state’s nine prisons west of the Cascades have air conditioning systems. All units in the three state prisons east of the Cascades are air-conditioned.

The temperature control systems in other units in western Washington vary from prison to prison, and even from unit to unit. At the Monroe complex, only the two units reserved for inmates with severe mental illnesses have air conditioning.

But the TRU—a unit that houses over 800 people, including some who are elderly or have chronic illnesses—is only outfitted with vents that pump air from the unit’s roof into common spaces and cells, as well as a pair of ceiling fans on both floors of the unit.

“When it got well into the triple digits,” David said, “all that system did was pump in hot air.” David, who suffers from a heart condition, added that he spent the weekend struggling to breathe and battling dizzy spells.

Another person incarcerated in the unit told PubliCola that temperatures in the TRU’s common areas rose above 100 degrees, in part because prison staff didn’t cover the skylights in the prison’s community room. In the cells on the second floor, residents claimed that temperatures reached over 110 degrees.

With indoor temperatures climbing, people living in the TRU struggled to find relief. DOC administrators loosened a handful of rules: Inmates were allowed to partially cover their cell windows and wear wet towels, and guards allowed people to spend up to an hour in two air-conditioned cafeterias before sending them back to their cells. (A kitchen was also available as a cooling station). On the prison yard, staff set up ‘misting stations’—small tents outfitted with sprinklers—where people could briefly find shade during their recreation time in the early afternoon.

But David and two other men incarcerated at the TRU said prison administrators could have done far more to keep prisoners healthy during the heat wave. One prisoner told his wife in an email that prison staff didn’t lower the temperature of the unit’s “scalding hot” showers to serve as a cooling station; instead, many of the men went without showers over the weekend. Others who spoke to PubliCola said guards restricted their access to the unit’s ice machine. Continue reading “Sweltering Temperatures and Minimal Preparation Left Washington State Prisoners Struggling to Cope with Heat”

“Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift

1. On Friday afternoon, 63-year-old Raymond Ben became the fifth person from King County to be resentenced under a new state law intended to correct decades of harsh mandatory sentences by retroactively removing 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.”

The law requires prosecutors to request resentencing hearings by July 25 for anyone currently serving a life sentence for a “three-strikes” case involving a second-degree robbery—which, unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter, typically doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. The law made at least 114 people across Washington eligible for resentencing, including 29 people from King County—many of whom, like Ben, have spent a decade or more in prison.

In 2001, a King County judge sentenced Ben to life in prison after he stole a computer from a secure building at the University of Washington and punched three bystanders who tried to stop him; because of previous convictions for burglary and second-degree robbery, Ben fell into Washington’s “persistent offender” category.

Ben is one of a dozen inmates for whom the unit requested resentencing hearings before the July deadline. Two of those hearings—for 50-year-old Michael Peters and 59-year-old Rene Haydel—also took place on Friday.

Of the dozen inmates scheduled for resentencing before July 25, three—including Ben, who has cancer—received priority because of health concerns. Rickey Mahaney, the first person resentenced in King County under the new law, left the Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility in Franklin County on June 1 to move to hospice care.

Once the Washington Department of Corrections approves Ben’s re-entry plan, he has arranged to join his sister’s family after his release. But not everyone resentenced under the new law can turn to family members for support, which has forced the prosecutor’s office to rely on nonprofit organizations—the Seattle Clemency Project, among others—to organize housing, employment and other elements of re-entry plans for several inmates who would otherwise have no support system after their release.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit within the King County Prosecutor’s Office, told PubliCola that many other prosecutors’ offices in Washington won’t be able to provide backup options to those they resentence. “If someone in another county doesn’t have family to help them get back on their feet after their release,” she said, “there’s no guarantee that they’ll have another option.”

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

2. PubliCola’s Erica C. Barnett moderated a mayoral forum sponsored by the MASS Coalition, Cascade Bicycle Club, Transportation Choices Coalition, and several other environmental groups last Wednesday.

The conversation, which featured five of the leading mayoral candidates (Colleen Echohawk and Casey Sixkiller were absent), highlighted substantive differences on issues that have flown under the radar during most debates this year, such as transit funding, the future of the Move Seattle levy, and the city’s contribution to climate change.

Some observations from the debate:

• Former council member Bruce Harrell, who’s leading (after “undecided”) in recent polls, has really embraced the idea that private donations will help solve the city’s biggest problems, including not just homelessness but transportation infrastructure.

In response to a question about the Move Seattle levy, which has failed to produce promised investments in sidewalks, bike infrastructure, and road and bridge maintenance, Harrell he would lean on large employers’ obligation “to give back to the community, to help us with the infrastructure. … So you’ll see not only a taxing mechanism, but you’ll see philanthropic efforts on my part.”

• Nearly every candidate supported the concept of making transit free—a huge endeavor that would have significant revenue impacts on both Sound Transit and King County Metro—although supporters varied in their responses to how they would like to see free transit happen. Continue reading ““Three-Strikes” Resentencing Continues; Campaign Debate Highlights Urbanist Shift”

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

Domestic Violence Survivors Face Challenges Using Law to Prevent Abuse of Legal System

King County Courthouse (Flickr: Evan Didier)

By Paul Kiefer

When a Washington state law intended to prevent abusive partners from using courts to harass or manipulate domestic violence survivors went into effect in early January, Isabelle Latour was one of the first people to try to put the new law to work. In doing so, she illustrated how difficult it may be for the law to efficiently protect survivors from a tactic known as “abusive litigation.”

Over four years, multiple King County judges ruled on dozens of occasions that Latour’s ex-husband, a Seattle attorney, had used frivolous lawsuits, unfounded complaints about Latour and her attorney, a questionable bankruptcy claim and dozens of other motions filed across multiple courts to drag out their divorce and maintain a form of control over Latour. The endless stream of litigation forced Latour to spend countless hours and thousands of dollars battling her ex’s efforts to re-litigate their divorce.

“After surviving a lot of abuse, I got pulled onto Zoom call after Zoom call—it became like a second job,” she said. “It was a heavy cloud hanging over me. I wanted to move on with my life, but I had to keep revisiting my trauma.”

When state Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island) began drafting legislation targeting abusive litigation for the state legislature’s 2019-2020 session, Latour and other survivors provided input. A version of the legislation that passed in 2020 empowered judges to limit an abuser’s ability to file or continue litigation against their victim; it also required the abuser to pay the court and attorneys’ fees. A court can only impose those restrictions on someone who a court has previously found to have committed domestic violence, and the restrictions expire after four to six years.

But the law’s impact depends on survivors, who need to petition a judge to consider whether to impose restrictions on their abuser’s rights to file litigation.

Because of the fragmented nature of Washington’s superior court system, it’s difficult to know how many survivors have tried to use the law so far. Of the half-dozen attorneys who spoke with PubliCola, only Latour’s attorney—Karma Zaike—has represented a client who successfully petitioned a court to stop their abuser from filing new litigation.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

By the time the law went into effect on January 1, 2021, Latour believed that her motion to stop her ex-husband’s litigation would be an open-and-shut case. Zaike was so confident that a judge would approve Latour’s request that she tried to schedule a hearing on January 4.

Instead, Latour struggled to find a judge to hear her case; then, once she landed before King County Superior Court Judge Johana Bender, she endured four more hearings over Zoom. According to Latour and Zaike, the new hearings gave Latour’s ex additional opportunities to denounce his ex-wife and her attorney with allegations of dishonesty, and to argue that his lengthy history as a litigant was justified.

Latour’s ex-husband did not respond when PubliCola attempted to contact him.

Because restricting someone’s right to file litigation is a serious imposition by a court, judges like Bender often allow an accused abuser to argue their case at length before deciding whether to issue an anti-abusive litigation order. “A lot of abusers are very persistent—they won’t give up easily,” said Antoinette Bonsignore, an attorney who volunteers with Seattle-based women’s rights group Legal Voice who has advocated for protections against abusive litigation.

Continue reading “Domestic Violence Survivors Face Challenges Using Law to Prevent Abuse of Legal System”

Year-Old Resentencing Effort Languishes Due to COVID Delays, Inconsistent Standards

Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Aberdeen, Washington (Washington Department of Corrections)

By Paul Kiefer

Last spring, the state legislature passed a measure allowing county prosecutors to ask judges to resentence inmates whose sentences “no longer advance the interest of justice.” The lawmakers who drafted the bill cast it as a tool to mitigate decades of harsh sentencing—and, they hoped, a way to recognize rehabilitation as the cornerstone of Washington’s criminal justice system.

When ‘tough-on-crime’ laws came into fashion across the United States in the ’80s and ’90s, Washington was no exception. In 1984, the state legislature dissolved Washington’s parole board, cutting off a key path to early release for inmates in the state; only thirteen other states have abolished parole. Most other options for early release are less flexible: inmates with clean disciplinary records can shave off fifteen percent of their sentence, and the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board hears two or three dozen cases per year, though they rarely grant clemency. More recent efforts to pass resentencing laws—including the legislation that passed last spring—are an attempt to open new paths to reduce sentences that no longer seem appropriate.

A month after the bill passed, Kimothy Wynn wrote a letter to Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett asking her to reconsider his sentence.

Wynn, now 43, has spent the past two decades in prison serving a 38-year sentence for a gang-related shooting in a Tacoma alley in 1999.

In his letter to Robnett, Wynn wrote that he believed that the sentencing standards in place during his trial were excessive. He had spent half his life in prison for a serious mistake—one he regretted but that hadn’t injured anyone, since the targets of the shooting escaped unharmed. But because inmates in Washington don’t have the option of parole, Wynn wrote, he never had a chance to demonstrate that he deserved a a second chance. The new law, he told Robnett, could be his chance to join his wife and stepchildren on the outside. “Please let my case be one of the positive examples of why this bill was written,” he wrote.

“Understandably, the people writing [requests for resentencing] are unclear about whether they’re eligible. don’t blame them for giving it a shot.”—Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright

In October, Wynn received a reply from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. Though he met most of their criteria to be eligible for resentencing, a review committee declined Wynn’s request.

In the past year, hundreds of inmates across Washington have sent similar letters to county prosecutors. Most were rejected outright; many others, including in King County, are still awaiting a prosecutor’s decision. Since the passage of the 2020 law, SB 6164, fewer than a dozen people have been resentenced as a result.

The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), told PubliCola that she didn’t have specific outcome in mind when she drafted the measure; the goal, she wrote, was to “see who would benefit” from the law in its preliminary form, and then analyze the results to shape future legislation. But Wynn and other inmates saw the law as a reason to be hopeful, not a preliminary test of prosecutors’ willingness to reconsider past sentences. “This past year has been heartbreaking, sitting here in prison hearing person after person getting denied for [resentencing] when I know they are deserving of this chance,” he wrote in a letter to PubliCola. “[Yet] another year that criminal justice and sentencing reform is just talked about and never anything done…”

There doesn’t seem to be a singular reason the bill has had such a negligible impact so far.

Prosecutors in many of the state’s smallest counties, such as Skamania, Stevens and Pend Oreille, haven’t gotten around to creating their own eligibility criteria for resentencing and instead review cases individually; those prosecutors have only received a handful of resentencing requests, none of which they approved. Continue reading “Year-Old Resentencing Effort Languishes Due to COVID Delays, Inconsistent Standards”

New State Drug Laws May End Some Deportation Proceedings, But Risks Remain

King County Detention Center, Seattle (Photo: PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

When the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in February that the state’s harsh drug possession laws were unconstitutional, most lawmakers, prosecutors and defense attorneys hurried to prepare for the ruling’s vast consequences for the state’s court system and the tens of thousands of people whose convictions for drug possession are now baseless.

Among those impacted by the ruling, State of Washington v. Blake, are immigrants convicted for simple drug possession under Washington’s pre-Blake drug laws. Some are currently facing deportation because of a drug possession conviction; others have already been deported.

Ann Benson, the Directing Attorney of the Washington Defender Association’s Immigration Project, says immigrant rights groups around the state are still trying to tally the number of immigrants who could be impacted by the Blake decision; her office estimates that at least 75 people in Washington Department of Corrections custody fall into that category, in addition to the hundreds of other immigrants with drug possession convictions who aren’t currently incarcerated and those who have already been deported for drug possession.

The Blake decision is most consequential for green card holders, for whom a criminal conviction can either create an obstacle to government services—federal student loans, for example—or trigger deportation,

For those immigrants, the Blake decision has eliminated the federal government’s justification for their deportations, providing a source of hope for those who have been separated from their families during deportation proceedings—and potentially for those who have already been deported.

But a newly passed law that partially re-criminalizes drug possession dampens the implications of Blake for the future of immigration enforcement in Washington.

The Blake decision is most consequential for green card holders, for whom a criminal conviction can either create an obstacle to government services—federal student loans, for example—or trigger deportation, depending on the charge. Because the state supreme court’s ruling nullifies past drug possession convictions, some green card holders with criminal records now have a chance to avoid some of those consequences. Those facing deportation for a drug possession conviction can now file a motion in a county criminal court to vacate their conviction; without a conviction, ICE can’t move forward with their deportation.

Tim Warden-Hertz, the managing attorney with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said the pace at which immigration courts respond to Blake will depend on ICE, whose attorneys serve as prosecutors in deportation cases. “ICE has the discretion to be proactive,” he said. “They can move on their own to reopen cases—and, for that matter, to terminate cases.” An ICE spokesperson did not answer PubliCola’s questions, including about whether their attorneys plan to end deportation proceedings unilaterally.

Warden-Hertz added that, thanks to Blake, former green card holders deported for drug possession convictions might be able to return to Washington once a court vacates their conviction. “If we can reopen their cases,” he said, “then the client regains their green card, which means they regain their lawful permanent resident status and should be able to travel back to the United States.” Thus far, he said, his legal team have only identified one client who may be able to reclaim their green card. Continue reading “New State Drug Laws May End Some Deportation Proceedings, But Risks Remain”