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The LBC's Final Report to the Legislature: A Retreat From The Principles of the SRA

By Ed Mead

On January 17, 1991, the Legislative Budget Committee (LBC) issued a "proposed final report" on the performance of the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB). The LBC assessed the operations of the ISRB in the context of the dual sentencing system that still exists in Washington State. Their "finding and conclusions" reflect the philosophy of the report. It says, in applicable part:

"We find that the current policies of the board, and its discretion in making release decisions, provide a greater measure of public safety protection than presently exists under the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA). There are and will continue to be people who will reach the end of their sentences but who will still pose an unacceptable risk to public safety if they are released. Under the [old] indeterminate system, these people can be denied parole or release until ... their statutory maximum terms. For some prisoners this maximum is life. These same people under the [new] SRA would have to be released at the end of their determinate terms, even if there are compelling reasons to believe they will reoffend."

The LBC report "recommended a comprehensive review of the sentencing system" to be completed in 1991. This review, the report strongly implies, would provide the necessary reasons to pass laws to extend "preventive detention;" to "dangerous" SRA prisoners. The LBC report doesn't contemplate eliminating the dual sentencing system. They seek to apply the very worst aspects of the old system to SRA offenders.

What the LBC report lacks, like everything coming out of the state these days, is any sense of fairness or justice. Their only yardstick of "justice" is the perceived demands of "public safety." Lawmakers should contemplate the gulf between today's sentencing mess and the principles originally contained in the SRA legislation.

The passage of the SRA made most terms more lenient, yet pre-SRA offenders have not benefited. Similarly, two of the principles behind adoption of the SRA, as set out in R~W 9.94A.-010 (2) and (3), were to: 1. "Promote respect for the law by providing punishment which is just." 2. "Be commensurate with the punishment imposed on others committing similar offenses.

Moreover, Article 15 of the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the United States is a signatory, states that: "if, subsequent to the commission of the offence, provision is made by law for the imposition of a lighter penalty, the offender shall benefit thereby."

The passage of the SRA made most prison terms more lenient, yet pre-SRA offenders have not benefited thereby. These lofty principles seem to have been abandoned by the courts and legislature. They have been replaced with the hysterical battle cry for "public safety."

The LBC's get-tough-on-crime rhetoric will most likely result in the legislature's adoption of a sentencing system that is neither just nor protective of the public's safety. By following the reactionary recommendations of the LBC's report, the legislature will only further their retreat from the democratic principles of fairness; they will simply compound the injustices of today's dual sentencing system.

The arbitrary and capricious abuses of the ISRB must be curtailed. There is only one realistic option for the thousands of Washington State prisoners and parolees still suffering under the oppressive burdens imposed by the ISRB. That option is to diligently struggle for the abolishment of the parole board and replacing it with a three judge panel directed to eliminate the dual sentencing system. The best way to accomplish that, we believe, is to implement the initiative campaign being fought for by the Prison/ Community Alliance.

While prisoners and their allies may ultimately be unable to obtain the number of signatures necessary to put an initiative on the 1992 ballot, the struggle to achieve this objective will work to build prisoner and family strength, and make it possible to promptly respond to other outrages (a strength initially lacking when it was needed to combat the digital rapes of IMU prisoners by prison custody). Moreover, by participating in the undertaking to obtain the initiative, we lay the groundwork for a statewide debate on the correct philosophical approach to criminal justice issues. This debate is essential lest the field be surrendered to the failed policies of today. For nearly every prisoner behind the walls, there are loved ones who are also doing time. The potential for progress exists; we need only make it happen.

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