State lawmakers reached agreement Thursday on an amendment to the state Constitution granting judges the authority to deny bail to criminal defendants who pose a serious threat of violence.
OLYMPIA — State lawmakers reached agreement Thursday on an amendment to the state constitution granting judges the authority to deny bail to criminal defendants who pose a serious threat of violence.
The state Senate voted 48-0 for the measure after a nudge from Gov. Chris Gregoire, who personally intervened in recent days to strike a compromise acceptable to law-enforcement groups and civil libertarians in the Legislature.
The state House is expected to concur as early as Friday, sending the measure to the November ballot for voter approval.
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The effort to amend the constitution was spurred by the Nov. 29 slayings of four Lakewood police officers. They were shot to death in a coffee shop by Maurice Clemmons, an Arkansas parolee who had been released from jail six days earlier on $190,000 bail.
At the time, Clemmons was facing child-rape and assault charges which could have landed him a third-strike conviction and life in prison. He was released on bail. The Washington Constitution currently allows judges to deny bail only in death-penalty cases.
The proposed amendment would allow judges discretion to deny bail to anyone charged with a crime carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. That encompasses the state’s “Class A” felonies: the most serious crimes such as murder, rape, armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.
That would apply to more than 5,000 defendants a year, according to sponsors, vastly increasing the number of people who could be held behind bars pending trial.
However, to deny bail, judges would have to find “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant has a “propensity for violence” and poses a “substantial likelihood” of danger to the community, according to the proposed amendment.
The amendment includes more crimes than earlier versions proposed by state senators concerned with the erosion of civil liberties. House negotiators, backed by Gregoire, pushed for stronger language.
On Thursday morning, Gregoire was seen in the wings of the Senate chamber lobbying lawmakers on final language for the amendment.
After emerging from a closed-door meeting, Gregoire said she’d grown concerned that the Senate was “stacking” so many restrictions on judges that the amendment could become unusable.
Negotiators on both sides praised the final result, saying it would save lives.
“If this had been in place, the four Lakewood police officers could have been alive today,” said Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, a Seattle police officer who was lead sponsor of the measure.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Adam Kline, D-Seattle, had favored a narrower amendment that would have reduced the number of crimes for which bail could be denied.
But Kline said Thursday he was pleased with the final product.
“We compromised in a way that allows a great increase in public safety without reducing civil liberties,” Kline said.
He said the language requiring judges find specific evidence of a “propensity for violence” should ensure defendants are not denied bail merely “on a hunch” or because of their appearance or race.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington remained opposed to the bail restrictions, arguing lawmakers should have convened a task force to study the issue first.
“We still hold the position that the way to change the constitution is really with a lot of careful thought,” said Shankar Narayan, the ACLU’s legislative director.
But Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar said he was happy lawmakers had acted. “I think that’s great. That sounds exactly like what we were looking for,” he said.
The amendment, officially known as the Lakewood Law Enforcement Memorial Act, will go into effect if approved by a majority of voters in November’s general election.
Other proposals spurred by the Lakewood killings are also moving through the Legislature, including a measure to boost punishment for people who harbor family members on the run from the law. Lawmakers are also debating a plan to improve benefits for the families of slain officers.
Jim Brunner: 360-236-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org