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New Crime Legislation Stresses Punishment

Punishment, not prevention, has the momentum in Olympia, where lawmakers are looking at several get-tough approaches to violent crime.

Measures in the works would require longer sentences for armed criminals, apply the death penalty to more crimes and try more juveniles as adults.

Critics, including Gov. Mike Lowry, argue the get-tough agenda would cost too much and won’t reduce violence. But even members of his own party disagree, including Senate Majority Leader Marcus Gaspard, D-Puyallup.

Victims, not costs, are on the Legislature’s mind.

“I don’t care how much this is going to cost, and neither do the voters,” Rep. Tom Campbell, D-Spanaway, told a joint meeting of the House Corrections and the House Law and Justice committees last week. “If it costs a lot, we’ll find the money.”

It may be pricey.

Take Initiative 159, the “Hard Time for Armed Crime” measure, a centerpiece of the get-tough agenda.

It would require an additional 600 prison beds at a cost of $170 million over the next decade, according to estimates by the State Sentencing Commission. Paying for more prisons may prove difficult under spending limits imposed by Initiative 601, a tax and spending limitation measure approved by voters in 1993.

The “Hard Time for Armed Crime” initiative would force judges to increase sentences for criminals caught with weapons while committing certain crimes.

A murderer using a gun could get an additional five years, while a car thief caught with a knife could receive an additional six months.

The initiative also would apply the death penalty to more crimes, including fatal drive-by shootings, and in some cases prohibit early release for good behavior in prison.

While lawmakers debate tougher laws, the rate of reported violent crime actually is down statewide.

During the first six months of 1994, violent crime fell 8 percent compared with crime in the first half of 1993, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

In Spokane, the violent crime rate dropped 7 percent during the same period. However, that followed a steady increase in violent crime between 1989 and 1993, in which Spokane outpaced the state with a 29 percent jump in violent crime.

Statewide, the violent crime rate rose 6 percent during the same period.

Lawmakers say it’s time for a gettough approach instead of prevention programs such as those included in the state crime bill passed last year.

“Some of these programs are just sort of excuses … for bad personal choices that people make,” said Rep. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, who chairs the House Law and Justice Committee.

That sentiment, shared by many legislators from both parties, may spell doom for Lowry’s competing “Get Smart on Crime” package.

It includes stricter penalties for some crimes but spends $28 million on social programs designed to aid families and discourage youths from turning to crime in the first place.

But even if the get-tough agenda wins out, some question whether it will work.

“All of these things are being driven by emotion,” said Joseph Weis, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. “Let’s recognize the emotional sensitivity … of the victims, but let’s step back and look at whether these proposals make sense.”

Weis said harsher sentences simply won’t deter some crimes.

“People who are going to commit a murder are going to be as likely to commit it regardless of the sanctions,” Weis said.

Padden counters that criminals who are locked up won’t be able to kill innocent people.

But keeping them there is expensive.

The state prison budget has swelled in recent years from $500 million in the 1989-91 biennium to $810 million in 1993-95.

Even without any changes to sentencing laws, the state will need to spend more than $1 billion in the coming biennium, according to the Department of Corrections.

And because prisons already are full, adding more to the system could mean letting non-violent criminals out sooner.

“I think there is a problem, especially in the juvenile justice system, because of the overwhelming numbers they process,” said Dave Peffer, assistant chief of the Spokane Police Department.

He said non-violent juvenile offenders rarely receive any serious punishment because there is no room to incarcerate them.

“The product of that system, of course, is by the time that person reaches 18 or 19, the criminal lifestyle is deeply entrenched,” he said.

Lowry’s crime package includes money for services aimed at children, but critics argue that money would be wasted by state bureaucracies.

Lowry can’t even veto the “Hard Time for Armed Crime” initiative, which requires the approval of the House and Senate to be passed.

It was sent to the Legislature after garnering more than 236,000 signatures of state voters.

The signature drive was coordinated by David LaCourse, who ran the successful “Three Strikes You’re Out” campaign two years ago.

He called the current debate a “litmus test” for the new Legislature.

“We feel the vote on ‘Hard Time for Armed Crime’ will indicate just how much the Legislature has changed from last year,” LaCourse said.