The parole movement takes a step forward with a proposal backed by King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission. It would allow three-strikers to apply for early release after 20 years.

Share story

Last summer, state Rep. Roger Goodman warned a group of criminal-justice reformers that any attempt to bring parole back to Washington would be met with daunting resistance. “That doesn’t mean you don’t do it,” he added.

This week, the Kirkland Democrat took a step forward, still sounding cautious but noting that a new proposal has the support of King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

Chaired by Goodman, the House Public Safety Committee held a work session on a proposal — not yet a bill, but a first crack of what Goodman and others hope to turn into legislation.

It would allow people sentenced to life in prison under the state’s three-strikes law to petition for early release after serving 20 years, provided the offender had not been convicted of a sex offense or aggravated first-degree murder. A newly constituted “second look review board” would hear those petitions.

The state eliminated parole in the 1980s as tough-on-crime sentiments were running high across the country. Washington’s policymakers also wanted to eliminate racial biases and geographic inconsistencies believed to be prevalent in parole decisions at the time.

But recently, as a bipartisan movement to combat the nation’s exceptionally high incarceration rates has taken hold, criminal-justice reformers have been revisiting the question of parole. Some activists have expressed the desire for a sweeping parole law that would affect most people serving lengthy sentences.

Over the past year, the Sentencing Guidelines Commission considered broader proposals before ultimately voting to focus on three-strikers.

“The notion of a second look is new enough, and controversial enough to consider phasing in through incremental steps,” said Satterberg, a commission member, in an email.

He added that the commission might later bring forward another proposal aimed at geriatric inmates. Reformers frequently discuss older inmates because they are generally considered at low risk to reoffend, and their medical costs in prison are high.

Goodman said he intends to craft a bill for the next session on the three-strikers proposal. The invited guests to the Tuesday work session did not include critics. But the legislator knows they’re out there. One major objection he’s heard is that revising three-strikes law would betray victims’ families, led to believe an offender would be locked up for life.

He speculated that such criticism might be tempered by initially reviewing three-strikers with the least serious offenses — those, for example, convicted of second-degree robbery, which doesn’t involve physical harm.

Still, he said, “we face major obstacles in the Senate.”

Even so, the Republican-controlled Senate is not immune to the call for criminal-justice reform. The House recently passed House Bill 1553 that would allow people with criminal records access to occupational licenses they are currently barred from obtaining.

The Senate added restrictions, for example excluding those with convictions for the most serious felonies, and unanimously passed the bill Thursday.

“It is a pretty big deal to remove collateral consequences of a felony conviction for people who have done their time, and paid their debt to society,” Satterberg said.