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WA Initiative to Increase Gun Penalties

By Paul Wright

The Washington Citizens for Justice are the right-wingers headed by Dave LaCourse, of the Public Policy Institute in Bellevue, WA; John Carlson, of KVI radio and Seattle Times columnist and Ida Ballasiotes, Republican state representative for Mercer Island. [Editor's Note: writing for the Times plugging I-593 Carlson referred to it in the third person, neglecting to inform readers that he was the chairman of the initiative and his mother the treasurer. A database search turned up 77 references to I-593 in the Times and not once was this mentioned.] In 1993 their main project was to get Initiative 593 on the ballot. Better known as "3 Strikes You're Out" it was passed by Washington voters in 1993 [See PLN, Vol. 5, No. 6]. Not content with that, they have a new initiative going. This one is Initiative 159 with the slogan "Hard Time for Armed Crime."

The main purposes of this initiative are to increase the sentences given to criminal defendants convicted of committing crimes with firearms; an expansion of the death penalty statute and elimination of good time for these additional mandatory minimum sentences. It also changes the seriousness level of several offenses that are currently set by the Washington state Sentencing Guidelines Commission, a non partisan body appointed by the Governor.

If passed into law this initiative would require an automatic, mandatory sentence enhancement of five years for any class A felony; 3 years for any class B felony; and 18 months for any class C felony if a firearm is used to commit the underlying offense. The initiative establishes the following enhancements for the use of other deadly weapons (knives, clubs, rope, etc.,) during the commission of a crime: 2 years for any class A felony; 1 year for any class B felony and 6 months for any class C felony. This applies only to first time offenders. The initiative requires that these deadly weapon enhancements be automatically doubled if the defendant is sentenced for using a deadly weapon in any subsequent crime. After that, presumably, it doesn't matter because the defendant would likely be getting life without parole as a third striker. The initiative does not allow any reduction for good behavior, and the enhancement must be served consecutive to any other sentences imposed. Washington state law now currently allows only a two year enhancement for use of any deadly weapon used during the commission of certain specified crimes.

The initiative would also increase the penalty for current and newly created gun crimes. For example, the current sentencing range for first degree reckless endangerment (discharging a firearm) is 0-90 days. The Initiative would increase that to 15-20 months. Theft of a firearm is currently 0-90 days, it would increase to 12-14 months. Possession of a stolen firearm is currently 0-90 days, it would increase to 6-12 months. It also changes the manner in which prosecutors charge and prosecute crimes by automatically making any and all felony crimes committed with a deadly weapon into the more serious "crime against persons" category, whether or not anyone is actually injured, i.e. display of a weapon. This provision is to increase the likelihood defendants are charged and prosecuted. Its likely effect will be yet more cases going to trial.

In an effort to make prosecutors and judges accountable, the initiative requires a sentencing document be kept for all plea agreements and sentences involving a violent crime and any crime involving a weapon. The document has to include the sentence recommended by the prosecutor, the sentence actually imposed by the judge with the latter's printed name and legal signature. The court and prosecutor shall keep copies. A copy of these documents is to be sent to the state Sentencing Guidelines Commission which will compile a yearly and cumulative judicial record of the sentencing practices of each judge regarding their sentencing practices for crimes involving weapons, violent offences etc. The Commission is mandated to make a comparison between the sentencing practices of each judge and the standard sentencing range for the specific offense, appropriate offender score and any applicable mandatory minimums. These records must be made public for review in a official published document by the Commission. In Washington state both prosecutors and judges are elected officials and this will likely increase the tendency, already present, to impose longer, harsher sentences, which is the goal of the initiative. Any sentences above or below the standard range will indicate what the prosecutor's recommendation was regarding the sentence.

Firearms are removed from all current property offenses in order to make them separate crimes with harsher penalties. The definition of first degree burglary is amended to include burglaries of any building where an offender was armed with a weapon or assaults anyone. Currently, state law defines first degree burglary as burglary of a dwelling.

The initiative will also expand the death penalty statute by creating whole new categories of offenses eligible for the death penalty. It authorizes the death penalty for any drive by shootings or where a firearm was discharged from or near a vehicle used to transport the shooter, firearm, or both, to the scene of the crime; and for murders committed "to obtain or maintain his or her membership or to advance his or her position in the hierarchy of an organization, association or identifiable group." [Like the U.S. Marines?] It is obvious these provisions are aimed at minority youth who will be targeted as "gang members."

As previously predicted that the next logical step to the "3 strikes" law would be expansion of the death penalty, here it is: anyone who commits a murder in an attempt to avoid prosecution as a "persistent offender", i.e. third striker, is eligible for the death penalty. Last but not least, the offense of residential burglary is added to the list of offenses qualifying for the death penalty in the event someone is killed during its commission.

Readers should note that this is an initiative to the legislature, not to the people like Initiative 593 (3 strikes) was. There are several important differences between these processes. As an initiative to the legislature its backers have until December 30, 1994, to gather the signatures of 182,000 voters. If they gather that many valid signatures the initiative is presented to the state legislature to pass into law in its next session. If the legislature does not pass the bill into law it will be placed on the November, 1995 ballot to be voted on directly by the voters. By contrast, an initiative directly to the people requires that the 182,000 signatures be gathered by early July. By submitting the initiative to the legislators the backers gain several additional months to gather signatures. If they gather the necessary signatures to submit it to the legislature it is almost a certainty that the legislature will pass the initiative into law.

As a matter of public policy it should be apparent that the harsher sentencing provisions will require an even greater number of prison cells to accommodate the numbers of prisoners who will be remaining in prison longer. A better name for this would be the "Prison Overcrowding Bill."

If this initiative is passed into law will this be the last we hear from Washington Citizens for Justice? Alas, no such luck. In a letter to a citizen, Dave LaCourse states that their strategy is to target one area of criminal (in)justice each year. It looks like they have found a cash cow that they will milk for all its worth, namely the public's fear of crime. People desiring copies of the initiative should contact: Washington Citizens for Justice, 223 105th Ave. NE, Suite 201, Bellevue, WA. 98004. 1-800-775-3201. Ask for a lot of copies.

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