Asked to reconsider Washington’s three-strikes policy for life imprisonment, lawmakers find themselves balancing costs and risks.
The state could save money, without significant threat to public safety, by giving inmates who are over 50 and have served at least 15 years of their sentence, a chance for parole.
Sen. Jeannie Darneille, prime sponsor of a new form of “post-conviction review,” called it a chance to look at the person and not the crime that brought them to prison. There would be requirements for a clean record in prison and other marks of rehabilitation.
“This is not a free pass,” Darneille, D-Tacoma, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee. But her proposal would include people sentenced under Washington’s three-strikes law, which sends people with three convictions for certain felonies to prison for life.
Something legislators may not have considered when the three-strikes law was implemented, she said, is that those prisoners will grow old and die in prison. An inmate who is over 50 costs the Department of Corrections about four times as much as the average prisoners for health care, medicine and other accommodations.
Of those convicted under three strikes, 168 are now over 50, she said.
After 50, the likelihood a released inmate will commit a new crime goes way down, said Katherine Beckett, a University of Washington professor who has studied criminal behavior. Long prison sentences, like the ones required by the three-strikes law, “are not an effective way to address public safety,” she said.
But a long line of crime victims and their supporters urged senators not to give the state’s Indeterminate Sentencing Board more inmates to consider for early release. The chance for early release destroys “a modicum of certainty … that allows the victims a chance to stabilize,” said Maia McCoy, a victim advocate from King County.
Angie Dowell, whose father was murdered and mother left for dead in a 1980 robbery at the Barn Door Tavern in Everett, said the bill would “open the floodgates” for requests from people like Timothy Pauley, who was convicted of the tavern murders and already has filed multiple petitions to be released.
“They can’t manage the caseload they have,” Dowell said of the board.
Sidney Oie, who owned the Barn Door Tavern with her husband, said Pauley has been petitioning to get out since the 1990s, and she’s written letters to the board for more than 30 years to object. When she moved four years ago, the board kept sending correspondence to her old address even though she had given them the new one in writing and in person, she said.
Oie also has reason to doubt that inmates are rehabilitated in prison as they age. Her son, Sean, was murdered in Spokane in 2014 at the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza by Donald Phillips, 40, who had recently been released early from prison on a kidnapping and robbery conviction.
Sean Oie wasn’t an angel, his mother said, after the committee hearing, but he was trying to get his life back together after being on drugs. Phillips reportedly asked Sean for some heroin, she explained, and when Sean said he didn’t do that anymore, Phillips stabbed him in the chest, killing him almost instantly.
Phillips pleaded guilty just two weeks after the murder, and was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Although crime victims offered emotional testimony about fear of their assailants being released, former inmates also had emotional stories of redemption in prison.
Gerald Hankerson said he was sentenced to life without parole in 1987 for a crime he didn’t commit. Given clemency by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2009, Hankerson turned his life around and is now the policy director for the NAACP of Alaska, Oregon and Washington. The bill helps address the racial disparity in the state’s criminal justice system, where 4 percent of the population, but some 38 percent of the prison population, is African American, he said.
“Redemption is real,” said Dan Pens, who was in prison from 1981 to 2011 and now works for the Quaker Voice on Public Policy.
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