The Legislature is currently considering two bills that would give persons serving long prison sentences a chance to petition for early release. This blog will describe those bills. Future blogs will update the status of these bill during the legislative session.
House Bill 2001: This bill is called the Judicial Discretion Act (“JDA”). This bill would give discretion to judges to modify a prison sentence and release a person from long term confinement if the modification serves the interests of justice.
The following persons would be eligible to file a petition to modify a prison sentence:
· Offenders convicted as an adult (over age 18) and have served at least 10 years.
· Offenders convicted as a juvenile (under age 18) and have served at least 7 years.
These persons would receive a court hearing if they could make a substantial showing of one of the following criteria in their petition:
· They were under age 24 when they committed their offense.
· They are presently over age 50.
· They present evidence of rehabilitation while in prison.
· They have a medical condition requiring release.
· They have evidence of material facts not known to them or their attorney at the time of conviction.
If granted a hearing, a judge would then decide whether to grant early release if such early release would serve the interests of justice. To guide the judge in making this decision, judges would focus on:
· Any evidence of rehabilitation since the offense occurred.
· Any evidence that demonstrates a reduced risk for future violence.
· Any mitigating circumstances applicable to the offender at the time of offense, or time of petition.
· Any evidence that material facts were not known to the offender or attorney at the time of conviction.
The court would be required to schedule a hearing within a short time frame – 60 days. At the hearing the petitioner could present evidence and testimony in support of the petition, and the prosecutor could present evidence and testimony in opposition. The offender could be represented by a lawyer, and the court could appoint a public defender if the offender qualifies. If early release is denied, the offender would have to wait two years to file another petition.
What does this mean? For 40 years Washington courts have imposed fixed term prison sentences following a felony conviction, with no opportunity for “parole.” This means there has been no opportunity for an offender to try to reduce the term of incarceration. This new law would change that.
This new law would create a “parole” process to allow most offenders to go back to the sentencing court and ask for a reduction in prison time.
House Bill 1189: This bill would operate in much the same way as HB2001 (above). However, this bill would expand the Clemency and Pardon Board to determine early release rather than having judges make this decision.
The Governor has the power to grant a commutation of sentence. This means the Governor can release a person from a prison sentence before the sentence has been completed. This proposed bill would expand the Clemency and Pardon Board to hear more requests for commutation.
Unlike the “judge” bill (above) there would be few restrictions on who could seek commutation. The Clemency and Pardon Board would consider similar criteria to determine whether to recommend commutation to the Governor.
The same general considerations would apply. The primary issue would be whether the length of sentence continues to serve the interests of justice. The board would consider several criteria:
· Public safety.
· Criminal history.
· Circumstances of the offense.
· Acceptance of responsibility.
· Efforts at rehabilitation.
· Risk assessments from either the offender or prosecutor.
The board would also accept evidence from the prosecutor and any victim from the offense. The board could recommend for or against commutation, and could recommend conditions to be imposed on commutation. The offender could be represented by a lawyer, but would not be eligible for a public defender. An offender would have to wait 3 years to file a new petition if denied.
What does this mean? This bill would double the size of the Clemency and Pardon Board in order to consider more petitions for pardons and commutations. This bill would also give specific guidance to the board on how to evaluate commutation requests. Certainly, the Legislature, if it passes either bill, would do so with the intention of expanding opportunities for offenders in prison to seek release from confinement.
Our firm has experience successfully obtaining Governors' pardons. If either bill passes, we are situated to help those who seek representation to obtain early release. Feel free to contact our office for a consultation.