Tag: resentencing

“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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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”

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 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”