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Crime Remains Main Topic As Legislators Set To Return

Crime. During the last session of the Legislature, it was a subject all 98 members of the House and 49 members of the Senate talked about. And nearly all believed they had the answer.

Bill after bill was introduced until nearly every member was the prime sponsor of a “get tough on crime bill.”

“They’ve almost trivialized the whole thing,” groused Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Arlington, the only lawmaker not to sign on to a crime bill.

Crime is still foremost in the minds of nearly every legislator. But this year the issue probably will be more focused. And that focus will probably be more on punishment than rehabilitation.

Three-fourths of the Republicans swept into the House and Senate signed a “Contract with Washington State,” a legislative wish list that includes tougher criminal penalties

“Public safety has got to be at the top of the list,” says Rep. Mike Padden, a Spokane Republican who will head the House Law and Justice Committee. “One of the first orders of business for any society is to maintain a semblance of order.”

Awaiting the lawmakers when they convene next Monday will be an initiative proposal that embraces most of the proposals that have been advanced by lawmakers.

Initiative 159 would require that anyone convicted of using a firearm to commit a crime receive an additional sentence ranging from 28 months to five years, depending on the seriousness of the crime.

The initiative would also create a new crime - theft of a firearm - that would require a minimum one-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of stealing a firearm.

The definition of aggravated first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of death or life in prison without chance of parole, would be expanded to include murder to obtain or advance membership in organization, association or identifiable group; murder committed during a drive-by shooting; murder to avoid the life without parole sentence for violation of the Three Strikes law, and a murder committed during a residential burglary.

In addition, the initiative would require tracking of sentences to provide an easy method for voters to grade judges on their toughness.

The lawmakers can do one of three things with the initiative: They can approve it as written in which case it becomes law. Or they can enact an alternative and send both proposals to the ballot. Of they can ignore it, in which case it would go on next November’s general election ballot for ratification or rejection by the voters.

Most observers believe the lawmakers will choose the first option and put the law on the books as written.

In fact, sponsor John Carlson, a conservative talk show host, predicts quick passage in both the House and Senate. Carlson said he expects the proposal to gain at least 70 votes in the Republican-controlled House and as many as 35 votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Gov. Mike Lowry also has weighed in with his own proposal.

The governor is also asking for tougher sentences for felons who commit crimes with a firearm and also increased sentences for certain sex crimes committed by juveniles. He also is proposing that the Legislature allow judges to impose sentences based on the severity of the crime not the age of the juvenile.

The lawmakers are also expected to take a hard look on spending by the Department of Corrections. On average, it now costs the state $24,500 a year to house someone in prison - 25 percent more than it costs in Oregon and more than five times the amount of state spending per student in public education ($4,400).

Padden says making inmates’ living conditions less comfortable and cutting back on things like steak dinners and cigarette matches would help the state to come up with more money to put more people behind bars.

“The public might like to go back to barbed wire and concrete slabs, but I’m not in favor of that,” Padden said. “But I do think we’ve gone too far in the other direction.”

The death penalty also will come in for major consideration during the session.

Attorney General Christine Gregoire says she will ask the lawmakers to enact a law making lethal injection Washington’s primary method of execution.

Under current law, condemned inmates can choose hanging or lethal injection. If they refuse to make a choice, they are hanged. That provision would be reversed under Gregoire’s suggested legislation.

She said she is not suggesting that hanging be abolished “because we believe hanging is one of the swiftest and surest methods of execution.”

In the past both conservatives and liberals have opposed such a switch - the conservatives because they believe the punishment fits violent crime and liberals because they believe a switch would sanitize the process.

Gregoire’s proposal was prompted by the Mitchell Rupe case. U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly last year said hanging the 410-pound Rupe posed the risk of decapitation that violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Rupe, who has been on death row since 1982, was convicted of the shooting deaths of Twila Capron and Candace Hemmig during a bank robbery in Olympia.

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