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The Initiative Process, Can Prisoners Use It?

In its 1988 Report To The Legislature, the Washington State Parole Board admitted that it imposed exceptional sentences in 53% of the cases it reviewed. These exceptional terms were all above the applicable guideline range. When a sentence was within the range it was always at its uppermost limits.

The courts, on the other hand, during the same period imposed exceptional terms in 3.6% of the cases, and 56% of those exceptional sentences were below the guideline range.

A small but growing number of prisoners and family members want to turn the functions of the Board over to the courts, and to accomplish this it is being suggested that prisoners try to change the law through use of the state's initiative process.

Since 1912 Washington citizens have had the right to make their own laws. One of the processes for doing this is called the initiative. It is called that because the electorate can "initiate" legislation by having a proposition (proposed new law) placed directly on the ballot. While the process gives the electorate the right to legislate, it is not an easy right to exercise.

Any voter, acting individually or on behalf of an organization, may propose a new law or amend or repeal an existing law. The number of verified signatures required for an initiative is *% of the number of votes cast for the office of governor in the last gubernatorial election (150,000 certified signatures) or 4% for a referendum (75,000 signatures). A cushion of an additional 20% above those numbers is a good idea. (A referendum goes to the legislature, not the voters, and requires only half as many signatures.)

What could be done to get these signatures? There are nearly 8,000 adult prisoners in Washington. If 2,500 prisoners had just one family member or friend on the outside collect 60 (or 66 with cushion) valid signatures, it could be done. Or if 1,450 supporters gathered 120 (132 with cushion) signatures each we could pull it off.

Some prisoners could get a dozen outside workers, other of us none. If the strength did not exist for an initiative, then thought might be given to settling for a referendum.

Can we pull ourselves together enough to mobilize such a force of volunteers? That is what prisoners and their loved ones should start talking about. We do have allies, both real and potential. And we have no organized "friends of the parole board" to oppose us. Everyone dislikes the Board, both on the right and on the left. Moreover, the proposal to turn the functions of the Board over to the courts was one of the alternatives suggested to the legislature by the Sentencing Guideline Commission. It is not a "radical" idea. And prisoners have until late 1992 to get the job done, meaning we have time to organize.

Objective conditions are ripe. But is our subjective will adequate to the task? Can enough prisoners overcome their demoralization to the extend necessary to take such active responsibility for their collective interests? These questions have to be answered in the affirmative before very many of us run out on the end of a limb. And they will have to be answered in practice, not words.

We will have to reach many more prisoners with this newsletter, and a starting core of family members is required. Our money and our people are the yardstick by which the collective will to work for democracy is to be measured. Discuss this with your loved ones.

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