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Giving prisoners serving life sentences a chance for release is a good idea

An officer from the Washington State Department of Corrections waits in a tower at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on Oct. 12, 1998. A bill in the 2019 state Legislature would allow inmates serving long prison sentences to petition for release after 15 years.
An officer from the Washington State Department of Corrections waits in a tower at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on Oct. 12, 1998. A bill in the 2019 state Legislature would allow inmates serving long prison sentences to petition for release after 15 years. AP file photo

Admittedly, it’s a very difficult conversation to have. It’s also a necessary one.

If you needed proof of the former, a Valentine’s Day convening of the state Senate’s Law and Justice Committee provided plenty of it.

The subject of heated discussion was a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, which would provide the possibility of eventual release for Washington inmates serving long sentences, including life in prison.

That’s tricky territory because the convicted criminals who would be allowed to petition for release under Darneille’s bill committed crimes that rightfully can be described as violent and heinous.

Understandably, many people traveled to Olympia to testify against the bill.

As Jim Camden of The Spokesman Review noted, they included the children of murder victims, like Angie Dowell, whose father was shot and killed during a robbery at the Barn Door Tavern in Everett in 1980.

Maia McCoy, a victim advocate from King County, also argued that determinate sentencing, without the possibility of early release, provides victims with “a modicum of certainty … that allows the victims a chance to stabilize.”

On the other side, criminal justice experts and supporters of Darneille’s bill also made the trip to the state Capitol.

University of Washington professor Katherine Beckett, who studies law, societies and justice at the university, was one of them.

Beckett highlighted research showing that the push for longer prison sentences, particularly the state’s three-strikes law — which sends people to prison for life if they’re convicted of certain felonies — is helping to balloon the state’s prison populations while doing little to make our communities safer.

All of this set up a familiar dynamic — reformist versus victims — that’s at the root of why similar conversations in the past have fizzled in Olympia. It creates an often impossible logjam of emotion, fear and politics.

But for the sake of society and both aforementioned groups — not to mention those incarcerated individuals who have almost no path to redemption — it’s long past time we moved beyond it.

The pain and anguish of crime victims is legitimate, but perpetuating the tough-on-crime status quo without examining the mounting evidence suggesting the system isn’t working is really in no one’s best interest.

And the system definitely isn’t working.

“In the very large frame of things, it’s important to recognize that people can change, and that our (rehabilitation) programing works, and that people can be remorseful and take responsibility for their actions,” Darneille told The News Tribune last week.

In other words, Darneille believes that the money and resources the state is putting toward rehabilitation are worth it and shouldn’t be wasted.

“This is not a free pass,” the lawmaker said.

At least in its current form, how the bill would change things — if it’s passed — is fairly straightforward. It would expand the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, rename it the post-conviction review board and transfer oversight from the Department of Corrections to the governor.

More importantly, it would allow inmates who have served at least 15 years of their sentence and meet other rehabilitative requirements an opportunity to petition the new board for release.

In this way, the post-conviction review board would function similarly to the parole board Washington used until the early 1980s.

“The main premise of my addressing this issue has to do with a desire to … recognize that people have the capacity for change,” Darnielle explained to the Law and Justice Committee last week.

Putting arguments of redemption aside, at least for the moment, there are a number of practical reasons why Darneille’s proposal makes sense.

First and foremost, racial and socio-economic disparities within our prisons are well documented. African Americans and other minorities, along with those who lack financial resources and equal access to competent defense attorneys, routinely receive longer, harsher sentences. Darneille’s bill would take a needed bite out of that problem.

Second, the pipeline between the state’s foster care system and the state’s prison system is very real. It’s all too common for “state-raised” children, as Darneille often refers to foster children, to move directly from one to the other.

It’s a phenomenon that Art Longworth, an inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex, spoke to via video feed during testimony to the Senate’s Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee on Feb. 7.

“Nearly everyone I grew up with in the boys’ homes in this state went to prison. I was sent to prison as a foster youth, and I’ve been in 35 years,” Longworth said. “Imagine being from a neighborhood … you get sent to prison, and everyone that you grew up with in that neighborhood is in that prison.”

Third, because of the proliferation of long and life sentences, the state’s prison population is aging, presenting a host of expensive logistical issues. That is complicated by a growing body of evidence showing that prisoners “age out” of criminal violence by the age of 40, as Fordham University law professor John Pfaff and others have documented.

“Accessible cells, lower bunks (and) dialysis chairs all or will be soon in short supply as our population ages. If you haven’t been to the assisted living unit at Coyote Ridge (Correctional Complex), I urge you to go there because that is what aging in prison looks like,” Rachael Seevers, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, explained to the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee.

“The DOC’s most recent estimates indicate they’ll be nearly 800 people over capacity in two years, and almost one in five of our state prisoners are over the age of 50,” Seevers added.

All of this brings us back to the larger question of redemption, whether it should be possible and who should be allowed to strive for it.

The truth is long, tough sentences — especially under the state’s three-strikes law — are routinely handed down under the well-intentioned idea that people’s lives matter. But, intentional or not, denying individuals who have spent decades in prison working to right the wrongs they’ve inflicted a chance at redemption can be viewed as an argument to the contrary.

“We ought to be able to look at the person, and not the crime that brought them to prison,” Darneille said.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.