Once again it is the legislative season in Washington State. One bill is generating a lot of attention, it passed the Washington State Senate and has now moved to the State House. This bill will codify requirements for people with LWOP to be able to be approved for clemency.
The arguments I am seeing raised by the local news stations are essentially as follows:
1) Gary Ridgeway would be able to apply for clemency in just a few short years if this were to pass and he’s a serial killer who should never get out of prison. Therefore, no law can be passed that could give him any chance of release.
2) “We” (meaning prosecutors and Republicans) made a promise to victims that people convicted of First Degree Aggravated Murder would die in prison when the death penalty was taken away. This bill would break that promise.
Regarding the first point, Charles Manson died in prison in California where he had a hearing every few years to see if he could be paroled, and every single time he was told “No”. Just because a person is being reviewed to potentially be released does not mean that they will in fact go anywhere other than back to their prison cell to die of old age and medical neglect.
As for the second, prosecutors and republicans do not represent the victims/survivors of crime. Nor does any one person represent all of everyone in such a broad and diverse category of people. Rather, most prosecutors and republicans hold to a punitive model of criminal justice which is where their view point comes from and leads them to manipulate people’s pain into a political tool.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say, that’s not OK.
The reality is some victims/survivors of crime want to see the people who caused them harm be punished as much as possible. Others want the people who caused them harm to have a chance to reform themselves and eventually, reintegrate into society. At different points in their life any one victim/survivor of a crime may switch between one or the other of these viewpoints, or some other position in regards to the person who caused them harm.
I, as a person who has caused serious irreparable harm and who is specifically in prison for First Degree Aggravated Murder, have my own perspective. Yes, after I committed my crime I needed to be put in a place where I could not cause further harm. That place was prison. I’ve now served 15 years during which I’ve done and continue to do my personal work. I believe that if I keep it up, some day I will be ready to go back out into society.
However, as things stand, there is not a codified way for me to to be reviewed to see if I am ready to be released, and even if I was found releasable, there is no codified standard for how long I should spend in prison before I receive that review. In fact, as things stand, a person can could put in for immediately after being convicted and nothing but convention says they won’t be considered by the clemency board until after they’ve served a minimum amount of time, dependent on their crime. For murder it is roughly 20 years. A lot of people are turned down the first time they apply. I have a personal theory that the board just to see how they react to a “no”. So then, 3 years later, they can apply again for a slim chance at mercy, and every 3 years there after. And really, a person being recommended to the governor is more a matter of the clemency board’s whim than any set criteria for releasablity.
If this bill passes, it would codify when a person can apply for clemency (as opposed to it being convention) and codify the requirements to be satisfied for a person to potentially be found releasable (as opposed to it being the whim of the board). So in some ways this bill actually makes it less likely that someone who should not be released would be recommended for clemency.
And of course, let’s not forget that clemency is, at its heart, a political process. It requires the governor to sign off on any given individual’s release. And nobody is gonna vote for the guy who let a notorious serial killer free.