Thirty-six years after the Legislature adopted more aggressive standards for punishing felons, some lawmakers want to take another look at, and possibly a new approach to, the state’s sentencing laws.
Lawmakers from both parties have supported bills by state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, to evaluate sentencing practices, and by state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to evaluate the sentencing process.
The House voted 77-20 to hire a consultant to work alongside the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, which advises the governor and the Legislature on sentencing policies, and review the state’s tough-on-crime sentencing law, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1981.
Jinkins’ bill did not move forward, but was added to Padden’s larger criminal justice reform proposal in the Senate. That bill passed the Senate unanimously, but did not meet a deadline for a vote in the House. Padden said he will push for its passage during the expected special legislative session.
“There hasn’t been a really good, solid look at the (Sentencing Reform Act) since its inception,” said Keri-Anne Jetzer, a Sentencing Guidelines Commission staff member and an Office of Financial Management forecast analyst.
In 1981, the predominant philosophy was that only incarceration discouraged crime, but now, Jetzer said, the state should consider other options.
Jinkins said she hoped the review’s findings would encourage the state to consider allowing rehabilitated inmates to finish their sentences outside of prison under the watch of a parole officer, and to look at how it uses determinate sentencing, which requires judges to hand down sentences within ranges established by statute
Jinkins said she hoped the review’s findings would encourage the state to consider restoring parole and how it uses determinate sentencing, which requires judges to hand down sentences within ranges established by statute.
Under the system, specified crimes get specific punishments, and a prisoner’s rehabilitation efforts do not change the length of the sentence.
“It motivates people to improve if they have a chance of getting out (early) and there is some kind of community supervision in place,” Jinkins said.
The review also would assess recent changes to sentencing laws and the relationship between sentence lengths and recidivism, as well as make recommendations for reducing cost.
Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim said he and other prosecutors would have concerns about doing away with standard sentencing ranges because they provide more consistency in sentencing, which is important in holding criminals accountable for their actions.
Prosecutors see changing determinate sentencing as “significantly threatening our ability to really look at this idea of moral accountability and truth and certainty in sentencing,” said Tunheim, who testified on Jinkins’ bill on behalf of the Washington State Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Jinkins’ proposal has been incorporated into Senate Bill 5294, sponsored by Padden. His proposal calls for more whistleblower protections and would require more oversight of the state Department of Corrections in response to the mistaken early release of about 3,000 prisoners over the past 13 years.
The bill would create a task force to address the complexity in sentencing. Creating a more uniform format for sentencing papers for courts throughout the state and clarifying parts of the law would prevent more errors, Padden said.
“The biggest thing is to make sure the Department of Corrections focuses on safety (rather than paperwork) as their No. 1 priority,” he said.
The task force would include a Democrat and a Republican from both chambers, plus others representing the Sentencing Guidelines Commission, law enforcement, judges, lawyers, counties and the Office of the Attorney General.
“The whole bill is very important,” he said. “This impacts us a lot and it would be good to get some reforms passed.”
Forrest Holt: 360-943-7240