Category: legislature

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”

Durkan Says School District Should “Step Up” and Sweep Encampment, State Makes FEMA Funding for Hotel Shelters Easier

1. At a press conference on federal recovery funding last Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan was asked what she plans to do about the encampment on school district property near Broadview Thomson K-8, which PubliCola covered earlier this month.

Durkan spun the question on its head: Since the tents are on school district property, she said, it’s up to the school district to not only remove the encampment and store people’s tents and property but to “stand up their own process” similar to the city’s for doing outreach and connecting people to services, housing, and shelter.

“We’re working with them so that they can stand up their own process, and I hope that they are able to take that approach,” Durkan said. “I think that if they follow what we’ve been able to do in many places using city properties and city resources, that you can do very compassionate-based outreach and you can also move any encampment that has a particular public health or safety risk.

Staying on the other side of this invisible line has protected encampment residents from city-led sweeps, but it has also meant that the city has refused to help the people living there.

Durkan has refused to provide city assistance, outreach, trash cleanup, or other resources to the encampment on the grounds that it is on school district property, not the city’s.

The school district property is directly next to a Seattle Parks property where other people also live in tents. Staying on the other side of this invisible line has protected encampment residents from city-led sweeps, but it has also meant that the city has refused to help the people living there. The city’s HOPE team (formerly the Navigation Team) has exclusive access to a large percentage of the city’s limited number of enhanced shelter beds and hotel rooms, which they offer to residents of encampments the city is about to sweep.

The mayor noted, without using his name, that former Seattle Finance and Administrative Services director Fred Podesta—who helped establish the city’s rules for removing encampments—is now head of operations at the school district, and suggested that the district, as a “a billion-dollar organization with funds and resources,” ought to be able provide the same kind of services as the city and remove the encampment.

“The school district needs to step up, and we are there to help and assist them, but they cannot shirk their obligations and duties for school properties,” Durkan said. 

Of course, the purpose of the school district’s billion-dollar budget is to educate the city’s 54,000 public school students, not to pay for human services or encampment sweeps.

Support PubliCola

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.

2. In response to concerns from cities that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might fail to reimburse them for some of the costs of non-congregate shelters, such as hotels, that President Biden committed to fully fund as part of the federal response to COVID, state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) added $10 million to the state’s supplemental budget to provide jurisdictions with an extra layer of assurance.

As we’ve reported, FEMA has committed to pay 100 percent of eligible costs for non-congregate shelters, including both facility costs and services involved in running the shelter itself. The city of Seattle has resisted seeking FEMA funding to stand up or pay for hotel-based shelters, arguing that no services are covered and suggesting that this form of federal funding is a risky proposition. Continue reading “Durkan Says School District Should “Step Up” and Sweep Encampment, State Makes FEMA Funding for Hotel Shelters Easier”

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.

Support PubliCola

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”

Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process

Anna Zivarts, Disability Rights Washington

by Leo Brine

Transportation advocates were actually pleased when lawmakers ended the most recent legislative session without passing a new transportation package.

After the transportation committees released their proposed revenue packages late in the session, transportation accessibility groups and environmentalists were disappointed by the outdated investment priorities. Wanting a more equitable transportation package, advocates repeated a line of critique they’ve been making for years: The state needs to find new transportation revenue sources and free up revenue that is otherwise restricted to highway spending.

However, and perhaps because their recommendations have gone unheeded for a decade, a new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

Anna Zivarts, Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative for Disability Rights Washington, said the current system is a “pork model,” where legislators pick projects for their districts rather than investing in projects that make the whole state transportation system function better.

“A transportation system has to work across the state,” she said. “If you have everyone competing, that’s not going to create the best system overall.”

Advocates say lawmakers have too much power over which projects get funded and have political incentivizes to fund major highway expansion projects rather than expand transit services or improve pedestrian infrastructure. Featuring friction over projects, funding, regionalism, mode split, and maintenance versus new construction, the legislative ritual, akin to passing a kidney stone, played out in 2003, 2005, and 2015.

A new, more sweeping critique emerged in 2021: It’s time to dump the whole politicized “transportation package” model and create a new framework that assesses and prioritizes the state’s actual transportation needs.

In April, during the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, Rep. Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma) and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), shared their transportation revenue proposals. The House proposal would have spent $22 billion over 16 years, earmarking the majority of the dollars for highway projects, with about 20 percent going to multimodal projects. The Senate’s proposal would have spent $18 billion over the same period, with less than 10 percent going to multimodal projects.

Leah Missik, transportation policy manager for Climate Solutions, said lawmakers’ proposed investments in multimodal projects were a major step up from previous packages, but “continuously investing in road expansions is certainly not the way we want to go.”

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno of Front and Centered, a BIPOC environmental group, said, “this package process needs to go.”  Transportation packages never meet people’s needs and are a hodgepodge of project ideas from legislators, he said. Instead, Nunes-Ueno says lawmakers should establish climate, infrastructure, and safety goals, and allocate funding to state and local agencies that would decide how to allocate funding on projects.

Hester Serebrin, policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, said politics play too great a role when lawmakers craft transportation packages. She said lawmakers are more likely to invest in large projects, like highway expansions or major road repairs, because they garner more attention than smaller multimodal projects. “This process doesn’t incentivize … projects that help people travel between places,” Serebrin said. “Instead it incentivizes larger, geographically isolated projects.”

Other advocates agree that politics should play less of a role in the state’s transportation system. Vlad Gutman, Climate Solutions’ Washington director, like Nunes-Ueno, wants legislators to devise a set of goals and values for Washington’s transportation infrastructure and allocate funding to state agencies who can come up with projects and programs to accomplish the goals.

In order to fix the state’s transportation system, Paulo Nunes-Ueno said, “this package process needs to go.”  Instead, Nunes-Ueno wants lawmakers to set climate, infrastructure, and safety goals and allocate funding to state and local agencies.

“We need to be selecting projects and investing and designing our transportation system in a sort of objective, metric-based way that also recognizes and inputs the needs of communities and people who are impacted and stakeholders of transportation,” he said.

To do so, he argued, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should study the needs of the state and select projects based on those needs, “instead of [lawmakers] sort of piecemealing it by selecting projects one at a time,” Gutman said.

This participatory approach to transportation planning doesn’t make sense to Senate Transportation Chair Hobbs. “We’re in a democracy and legislators have a right to say how their districts should be supported by government,” he said.

Continue reading “Advocates Say It’s Time to Ditch the Old Transportation Funding Process”

Inslee Issues Pro-Housing Partial Veto; Another Avoidable Outbreak Preempts Planned Sweep; Affordable Housing Data Supports Single-Family Upzones

1. An important follow-up story to our Olympia coverage: On Thursday, Governor Jay Inslee vetoed several sections of a supposedly pro-accessory dwelling unit bill that ADU advocates convinced him failed the smell test. A pro-affordable housing coalition starring the AARP, Sightline, the Sierra Club, and the Washington State Labor Council, initially supporters of the legislation, wrote Inslee a letter after the session ended telling him the bill would actually end up being detrimental to the pro-housing movement.

PubliCola wrote about this bill all session, noting that housing development antagonist State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle), the House Local Government Committee chair, derailed the bill with, among other objections, odd complaints about “profit tourism” (a scary-sounding, but frankly meaningless epithet).

State Sen. Marko Liias (D-32, Edmonds) originally passed the bill on the Senate side, but by the time it came back from the House, thanks to Rep. Pollet and Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D-42, Bellingham), the legislation was watered down to the point that the affordable housing advocates felt compelled to send their letter urging Inslee to veto major portions of the bill, including provisions that gave cities veto power over ADU mandates.

Inslee’s message was clear: Let’s actually do something to create more affordable housing stock.

Now that the governor has weighed in, I’ll be working to pass an even stronger bill in 2022.

After Inslee’s partial veto, Liias told PubliCola:

“We need more housing options. Renters and homeowners both benefit from ADUs. I was disappointed in the House amendments. Now that the governor has weighed in, I’ll be working to pass an even stronger bill in 2022.”

A key piece of Liias’ bill did survive Inslee’s pen, a section that prohibits local rules barring non-related people (such as roommates) from sharing housing.

2. A new outbreak of an unspecified gastrointestinal illness temporarily halted a planned sweep at a homeless encampment near White Center this week, after King County Public Health recommended strongly against uprooting people with severe symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.

The Centers for Disease Control has recommended that cities refrain from sweeping encampments during the pandemic, because redistributing large numbers of people throughout cities causes an obvious risk of community transmission. But the city has begun ramping up sweeps of homeless encampments in recent months anyway, citing the need to keep parks and playfields safe and clear for kids going back to school, among other justifications.

“In general, we recommend taking into account potential communicable disease risks if there is a plan to move an encampment where there is either an active disease investigation or an active outbreak.”—King County Public Health

A spokeswoman for the public health department, Kate Cole, said the county is trying to figure out what pathogen is making people at the encampment sick. There have been several reported outbreaks of shigella among homeless people in the last year; the disease spreads rapidly when people lack access to sinks with soap and running water, which the city, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, has been reluctant to provide.

“In general, we recommend taking into account potential communicable disease risks if there is a plan to move an encampment where there is either an active disease investigation or an active outbreak,” Cole said. “We understand there are many health and safety factors that play into the City’s decisions about moving encampments and we maintain regular coordination with the City to address these complicated situations.”

The city identifies a list of “priority” encampments each week and directs outreach providers to offer shelter to people living at these sites before removing them. In addition the the White Center encampment, the city just placed encampments in Ballard and on Capitol Hill on its priority list.

3. We’ve got some more data to help put the city’s recent Mandatory Housing Affordability report in context. Last week, you’ll remember, we added some initial context to the report: Based on the total affordable housing dollars generated by development in the 6 percent sliver of the city’s single family zones that the council upzoned in 2019, it appeared that those areas were producing more funds for affordable housing than expected. Continue reading “Inslee Issues Pro-Housing Partial Veto; Another Avoidable Outbreak Preempts Planned Sweep; Affordable Housing Data Supports Single-Family Upzones”

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”

After Supposedly Historic Session, Progressive Tax Reform Advocates Say Democrats Need to Do Much More

Washington State Capitol (Creative Commons)

by Leo Brine

After a year of dire revenue predictions and a pandemic that exposed class fault lines, 2021 looked like the year for tax reform. Firmly in control of both houses, Democratic lawmakers proposed multiple tax bills to reverse Washington’s regressive tax structure. However, at the end of the 105-day session, lawmakers only passed two new progressive taxes: the capital gains tax (SB 5096) and the working families tax exemption (HB 1297).

The capital gains bill imposes a 7 percent tax on profits, or capital gains, of more than $250,000 on the sale of intangible financial assets, like stocks and bonds; about 7,000 taxpayers are expected to pay the tax. The revenue will fund childcare and public schools. The Working Families Tax Exemption will give low-income residents and families in Washington a tax rebate of up to $1,200 a year.

Both of the bills had been in the works for more than a decade, and tax reform advocates say they’re a good start, but that the state needs to do much more done. According to a 2018 study from the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, sales and property taxes siphon away roughly 18 percent of low-income residents’ annual incomes, and this year’s tax reform bills did little to improve that statistic.

The state’s sales tax, which is regressive because it costs lower-income people far more as a percentage of their income than higher-income residents, supplies more than half of the state’s general fund—roughly $22.5 billion during the 2017-2019 biennium. Because it’s such a major contributor to state revenues, cutting it would lead to a major deficit and the state would need to pass additional taxes to neutralize the revenue loss. “It would be logistically difficult to pull off in Washington state,” Andy Nicholas, policy director for the progressive Washington State Budget and Policy Center, said. Nicholas has suggested imposing higher sales taxes on luxury goods than on basic necessities.

Nicholas says broader reforms are likely to come “in a couple years.” In the meantime, he hopes legislators pass more rebates to ease the impact the current tax system has on the state’s lowest-earning residents. He says a tax rebate for renters could offset the cost renters pay for property taxes, which landlords generally pass along to tenants as part of their rent. Nicholas said Rep. Kristen Harris-Talley (D-37, Seattle) could attach the rebate to her anti-displacement property tax exemption (HB, 1494) which she proposed earlier this year. The House Finance Committee passed her bill, but it died in the Appropriations Committee.

Because of some of these policies, she says, “BIPOC communities and low-income communities haven’t been able to have the same benefits.” —Treasure Mackley, Executive Director Invest in Washington Now

Discriminatory private- and public-sector policies have prevented BIPOC communities from gaining social mobility, Treasure Mackey, Executive Director of Invest in Washington Now, told PubliCola. For example, Washington state allows judges to issue fines against criminal defendants, and they charge higher fines, on average, to people of color. In the private sector, discriminatory hiring practices kept workers of color out of high paying jobs and redlining confined people of color, particularly Black home buyers, to certain parts of cities like Seattle. Without the ability to generate lasting wealth, communities are stuck in a position where they have to spend a fifth of their income on regressive taxes.

“We need to not only modernize our tax systems to catch up with the economy that we have, but we also need to rebalance our tax code in a way that is fairer and more just and creates a level playing field for everybody,” Mackley said.

Democrats discussed a number of potential new taxes this year, including the wealth tax (HB 1406), which would have imposed a 1 percent tax on the worldwide wealth of the wealthiest Washingtonians. They also discussed a payroll tax similar to one Seattle implemented in 2020. The city imposes a tax of 0.7 to 2.4 percent on the payroll expenses of its largest employers; the larger the employer and the higher an employee’s pay, the higher the tax.

In future sessions, lawmakers will likely craft new tax policy based on the findings of the Tax Structure Work Group, which includes legislators from both parties, officials from the governor’s office and Department of Revenue and members of the Washington Associations of Counties and Cities. The legislature formed the group in 2019 to research replacements for Washington’s most regressive taxes, including like the sales tax and the business and occupation tax; however, legislation is still years away.

The group’s 2020 report recommends a value added tax (VAT) and a corporate income/net receipts tax to replace the B&O tax. VAT taxes a product at every stage of production, but consumers ultimately pay the final cost of the tax, whereas businesses that pay VAT can receive tax rebates. The corporate income tax would be levied on businesses that pay the federal corporate income tax, with exemptions for the smallest businesses. Unlike the B&O tax, the corporate income tax would allow companies to file for deductions on most of their operating expenses.

The work group also suggested instituting a progressive income tax to offset cuts to the sales tax. The obvious problem with this is that, according to a 1933 state supreme court ruling, income is property subject to a constitutional prohibition on graduated taxes. Passing an income tax would mean defending the tax in court and hoping the modern supreme court overturns the nearly 80-year-old decision.

Ostrom said if the court decides they want to protect the most regressive tax structure in the country, “that’s egg on the supreme court’s face.”

In fact, Democrats have set up this very possibility. The benefit (and possibly the purpose) of passing the capital gains tax may have been to force a court showdown; Sen. Jamie Pedersen told PubliCola last week he was excited that conservatives immediately sued. By getting the court to hear a legal challenge to the Democrats’ capital gains tax (which opponents argue is an income tax), the court will have the opportunity to overturn their previous ruling, opening the door to a progressive income tax. Alternately, the court could interpret the bill as an excise tax, which Democrats argue it is, without completely overturning their previous decision. Or the court could simply find that capital gains are also property and strike down the bill.

Aaron Ostrom, the executive director of the progressive statewide organization Fuse Washington, thinks it’s unlikely the court will rule against the tax, but if they did ,Democrats “would probably have to go back to the drawing board.” Ostrom said if the court decides they want to protect the most regressive tax structure in the country, “that’s egg on the supreme court’s face.”

A court ruling will surely influence the next moves for tax reform advocates and lawmakers, Ostrom said. But they will still have the same goal: “We’re all pretty committed to not having Washington have the most regressive tax code in country. It’s not good for the people of Washington, it’s not good for the economy,” he said. “We have to go back and find some strategies that work to shift the tax load off of the folks making the least.”

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”

New State Law Addresses Excessive Sentencing Under Washington’s Three-Strikes Rule

Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Brewbooks, Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington )

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. Continue reading “New State Law Addresses Excessive Sentencing Under Washington’s Three-Strikes Rule”

Tax Opponents File Lawsuit Against Capital Gains Tax. Democratic State Senator Says Bring it On

Youtube screenshot.

by Leo Brine

On Wednesday, a conservative think tank, the Freedom Foundation, filed a lawsuit against the hot-off-the-presses capital gains tax (SB 5096) and another conservative group announced they plan to do so as well.

In response, Democratic state Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola later Wednesday evening: Bring it on. Lawsuits are “great,” said Pedersen, who chairs the Law and Justice committee, because he sees them as a way to challenge old, anti-tax state supreme court rulings.

During this year’s legislative session, as the Democrats moved the capital gains tax bill through the legislature, Republicans decried it as an unconstitutional income tax. This is now the legal argument against the bill, which Governor Jay Inslee has not yet signed into law.

If the modern-day supreme court was to determine that income is not property, Sen. Pedersen said, it “would change the world for us in Olympia about what’s possible.”

The capital gains tax, which Democrats passed on the last day of this year’s legislative session on a 25-24 vote, with three moderate Democrats and every Republican voting no, imposes a 7 percent tax on financial gains from the sale of intangible financial assets, such as stocks and bonds, above $250,000. About 7,000 Washington taxpayers would pay the tax beginning in 2023.

The Freedom Foundation filed its lawsuit in Douglas County on behalf of seven state residents who would pay the tax. The group claims that capital gains constitute income, making the tax an income tax. In 1933, the state supreme court ruled that income is property subject to the uniformity clause in the state constitution, which says that different types of property—such as income below and above a certain threshold—can’t be taxed at different rates. This ruling has been the basis of claims that an income tax is unconstitutional for nearly a century.

Democrats say the capital gains tax is an excise tax because it’s the sale of assets that triggers the tax rather than the income that the sale generates.

Conservatives don’t buy it. “Capital gains are clearly income. And when you tax them, it’s an income tax — no matter what you choose to call it,” Freedom Foundation CEO Aaron With said in a press release. Continue reading “Tax Opponents File Lawsuit Against Capital Gains Tax. Democratic State Senator Says Bring it On”