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Toward Creating a More Equal Sentencing System

Toward Creating A More Equal Sentencing System
In 1981 the Washington state legislature enacted the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) in order to change from a rehabilitation based system of corrections to a punishment oriented sentencing policy. Two additional reasons for the change, as set out in RCW 9.94A.010 (2) and (3), were to:

I. "Promote respect for the law by providing punishment which is just."

2. "Be commensurate with the punishment imposed on others committing similar offenses."

For the most part the SRA has met its goals for those sentenced after the 1984 effective date of the act. But this more just and progressive approach to sentencing has not been fairly applied to the approximately 1,400 pre-SPA prisoners still in custody. According to the parole board's 1987 Report To The Legislature, 53 percent of pre-SRA offenders had their term adjusted above the applicable SRA guideline ranges, whereas the courts, during that same period, imposed exceptional terms in only 3.7 percent of the cases, and over half of those exceptional terms (56 percent) were below the SRA range. Moreover, pre-SPA offenders have an additional hoop to jump through once they have completed the new board-imposed minimum term; they must be found to be '"rehabilitated" before the board will release them.

What we have now is two disparate sentencing systems. The new SRA system in which punishment or just deserts is the guiding philosophy. Under this system an offender receives a fixed or determinate term of imprisonment, after the service of which he or she is released from custody. Under the old indeterminate sentencing system, however, the guiding principle is rehabilitation. The sentence has no rational ending point, and the offender cannot be released until the board certifies that the process of his or her rehabilitation is complete. The final result is that pre-SRA prisoners are serving longer terms with no specified release date simply because of some arbitrary date on which they happened to commit their offense. In short, the legislature's objective of doing away with disparity in sentencing is not being applied to everyone.

If as a progressive society we desire a fair and equitable criminal justice system, then let us also bring the remaining 1,400 people under the protection of the Sentencing Reform Act. How can this transition be made whole and brought to a completion? By exhausting the authority of the parole board, now known as the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (ISRB), decommissioning them, and turning their duties and functions over to the judicial system.

What is needed to rectify the unfairness contained within the existing system is simply this, legislation that would in effect say:

"The Indeterminate Sentence Review Board will set minimum term release dates for all indeterminate inmates, except those who have legislated mandatory minimum terms. And minimum terms set by the ISRB and those imposed by statute shall stand as determinate sentences. Once the term is set the ISRB will have fulfilled its authority and said inmates shall be treated in the same manner and under the same criteria as post-SRA determinate sentence inmates."

"In the case of exceptional sentences, those above or below the applicable SRA range, a review board will be empowered to review cases on an individual basis. All exceptional sentences will be reviewed. The review board will consist of three Superior Court judges appointed by the executive branch. The judges will each have an area of responsibility broken down by geographical sections. Each judge shall be empowered to hold sentence reviews for those inmates on his/her caseload. All rights and protections afforded SRA offenders at sentencing will apply to these review hearings."

One advantage to the community in this suggested legislation, in addition to the creation of a more just single sentencing system, would be the cost savings. According to the Report on the ISRB, issued by the Legislative Budget Committee on December 14, 1990, this savings would be considerable. "If the ISRB ... were to be eliminated entirely," the Report says, "the state would save approximately $3 million in the first year." The document goes on to state that the above figure "does not include the savings that would accrue from releasing from prison those people who have served terms beyond the [SRA] presumptive range. If this number is only 500 prisoners, the savings could be as high as $11 million per year." In addition to abolishing the board and turning its functions and duties over to a three judge panel, RCW 9.95.100 must also be repealed. This is the statute proclaiming that pre-SRA offenders shall not be released until the process of their rehabilitation is complete. Since the term "rehabilitation" is undefined, and cannot be measured in any event, the statute serves only to maintain a dual and inherently unequal system of punishment in Washington state.

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