Murder story distorts image of ex-prisoners

Zachary Kinneman is board president of What’s Next Washington.
Zachary Kinneman is board president of What’s Next Washington. Courtesy photo

Were you scared after you read the Nov. 26 News Tribune front-page story about Stonney Rivers and Theneious Swafford?

Apparently, Rivers had a life sentence that was commuted by former Gov. Christine Gregoire. He’s been out almost three years, and it’s alleged that earlier this month he shot and murdered a man in a drug-deal gone bad.

We’re all worried about public safety, and we certainly don’t want violent and dangerous people roaming our streets. But we have additional worries that you probably don’t.

We’re formally incarcerated, and we’re afraid that articles like this will make it harder for sentences to be commuted, harder for us to be seen as most of us are – law-abiding, tax-paying citizens - and harder for us to reintegrate.

Don’t misunderstand. We’re appalled by what happened at the Kent motel on Nov. 2. But Rivers and Swafford are exceptions to the rule.

We’ve made mistakes and we’ve paid the price. And, like you, we are non-violent, we are parents and grandparents, and we work hard to improve our lives. This reality of who most of us are rarely garners any press. It doesn’t sell, and so what we see instead are images that fill us all with fear.

Further, the article raises more questions than it answers. We’d like to know what services Rivers received after 20 years behind bars. Upon release, was he given the standard $40, a set of clothing and a ticket back to the county where he was convicted?

What about his substance use disorder? When considering his case, did the governor, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, the Clemency and Pardons Board and the judge who originally sentenced him consider whether he might require post-prison services of some kind?

The article also begs this question: What are the data on how often individuals reoffend when their sentences have been commuted? Are the criteria currently used to evaluate commutation applications appropriate?

If a significant percentage (over 10 percent, for example) of this small subset of prisoners is reoffending, we must evaluate their applications differently.

We must also explore what each of us can do to improve public safety and reduce recidivism. We know what fuels reoffending – lack of housing, lack of employment, and lack of care for physical and mental health problems.

We have some ideas. First and foremost, bring the experts to the table. Those of us who have reintegrated into our communities, despite multiple barriers, know what it takes to succeed.

With us as key players in the process, our state should conduct a comprehensive review of the criteria currently used for commuting sentences and determine whether they need updating.

We should then help the Department of Corrections develop programs to prepare individuals, before they are released, be ready to make an effective transition into the community.

Finally, we should work with the public and private sectors to immediately provide necessary services and follow-up to people coming out of prison.

As horrible as the shooting in Kent was, it should not deter us - especially not the governor or the Clemency and Pardons Board - from commuting sentences when appropriate.

If we do it right, the Rivers-type scenarios would be even less common than they are today. More important, instead of wasting their talents in prison, deserving individuals could be out, re-engaged, and contributing positively to our communities.

Zachary Kinneman of Pierce County is board president of What’s Next Washington, a group of formerly incarcerated individuals working to replace the system of mass incarceration with solutions that work better for everyone. Susan Mason is the organization’s executive director.