Knocking one day off of a jail sentence might not sound like a big deal.
But for some legal residents, a new state law cutting the maximum jail sentence for a gross misdemeanor to 364 days is the difference between staying in the United States or being deported.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the new range law last week.
Travis Stearns, deputy director of the Washington Defender Association, said the law fixes a discrepancy between the state's misdemeanor and felony sentences.
Before the bill passed, a legal resident sentenced for a misdemeanor, such as stealing a small item such as deodorant, might not serve any time in jail but could have a suspended sentence of 365 days.
Under federal immigration law, that person then would be deported, Stearns said.
Meanwhile, a legal resident who was sentenced for a felony like first-degree theft could get 90 days in jail and wouldn't face automatic deportation, Stearns said.
If someone has a jail sentence of a year or more, federal immigration law considers it an aggravated felony, and the immigrant is automatically deported, he said.
The problem is the federal government doesn't look at the number of days someone serves in jail, said Eric Hsu, coordinator for the bi-county Office of Public Defense.
A noncitizen could be deported even if the sentence was one day in jail, with 364 days suspended.
And once deported, that person can't ever legally come back. So for a relatively minor crime, someone is subjected to a Draconian punishment, Hsu said.
The new law affects legal residents, such as green card holders, and people eligible for relief such as political refugees and victims of domestic violence, Stearns said.
It doesn't change whether someone will be deported for being in the country illegally.
Toby Guevin, OneAmerica state policy and legislative manager, said it was an important change whether it helps one person or 1,000. And he said he thinks it will be closer to the higher end.
It comes down to equity, he said.
Washington was one of a handful of states with a 365-day maximum jail sentence for misdemeanors, Stearns said. The change brings Washington in line with most other states.
Although some judges were using 364 as a maximum for misdemeanors, others stuck with 365, Stearns said. After the new law takes effect, the disparity will end.
The Washington Defenders Association helped draft the bill and get it passed, along with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, OneAmerica, the Seattle City Attorney's Office, the American Immigration Lawyers Association for Washington and the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Senate Bill 5168, passed in the Senate on a 45-3 vote and in the House on a 93-2 vote.