I am the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the Washington House of Representatives and carry the weight and hope of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated community with me. This is not an easy weight to carry because incarcerated people, like me, are flawed and have in some cases caused great harm.
But I also know that our criminal legal system is quick to give up on people. There is no salvation, rarely rehabilitation, just long sentences for crimes often driven by poverty, trauma or substance use disorder.
If we are to have true justice, we must examine the tough-on-crime policies that have made this country the worldwide leader in incarceration. We must look at how our laws have been used to target communities of color. In our state, Black residents make up 18% of the incarcerated population despite making up just 5% of the population. Part of that reckoning with racial equity must be the reexamination of the draconian sentencing laws that this state put in place during the 1990s and 1980s.
Many have criticized House Bill 1692 as being “soft on crime” or favoring incarcerated people over victims. That’s simply not true. Let me start of by saying that HB 1692 is not going to become law this year. If you are a victim or family member impacted by drive-by shootings, and this bill renewed the pain from that trauma, I want to apologize and make it clear that was not my intent. But it is important we have this conversation.
The idea for HB 1692 was first brought to me by retired judge and former state Sen. Michael Heavey. Heavey was in the state Senate in 1995 when shooting from a car was made an aggravating factor for first degree murder. His recollection is clear: This provision of the law was added to target predominantly Black gangs in Tacoma and Seattle. First degree murder carries a sentence of 20 to 30 years in prison. Aggravated first degree murder carries a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.
Is a person who kills someone from inside a car more culpable than someone who kills someone standing on a street corner? That’s the question I asked myself when considering this bill. Both commit murder, a horrible and heinous crime, and both deserve prosecution and to be judged for their crime. But because of this law, one person is irredeemable, and the other has a chance at redemption. Is that appropriate when most drive-by shootings are committed by young people? Is it appropriate to strip a judge of the discretion to weigh the circumstances of the crime and the person?
Most aggravating factors for first degree murder make sense, such as if the crime involved a victim who was tortured, pregnant or a police officer. But none of those factors relate to where the bullet was fired from.
This aggravating factor has only resulted in one conviction. Kimonti Carter was sentenced to life without parole for the killing of Corey Pittman in 1997. Pittman was a promising student home on summer vacation when he was killed by Carter in a drive-by shooting intending to target rival gang members. I am sure the pain from Corey’s death still resonates to this day. My heart and sympathy go out to Pittman’s family.
Carter was only two months past his 18th birthday when he killed Corey Pittman. He had been involved with gangs since he was 11. After his conviction, he turned his life around, starting the Taking Education and Creating History (TEACH) program. TEACH helps incarcerated individuals teach college courses to their peers. Since its introduction in 2013, the program has expanded to include a coding boot camp and is offered in prisons throughout the state. Thanks to an open and inclusive policy, TEACH has led to a significant cooling of racial tensions. One Department of Corrections official credited the program with doing more to improve race relations in Washington prisons than any other program.
Creating TEACH and turning his life around does not absolve Carter of the murder of Corey Pittman. But it should make us consider whether we value redemption over vengeance. If we believe in second chances, Carter shows that redemption is possible, if our laws allow it.
This bill is not about softening Carter’s sentence. It’s about asking ourselves the hard questions. Are we a society that believes in redemption? Do we only believe in redemption for some kinds of people? How can we create justice without relying on vengeance?
Formerly incarcerated and incarcerated people are often deeply flawed and most guilty of committing a crime, but they are also people. As a survivor of crime, I also know that vengeance does not take the pain away. My healing has come from finding a community and purpose for the pain. I want us to have this conversation about punishment and redemption. To become a better society, we must look ourselves squarely in the eye and answer these hard questions.