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Washington Legislature Amends 35% Law, Again

RCW 72.09:480 was enacted in 1995 as part of House Bill (FIB) 2410, a massive prisoner bashing bill that unanimously passed the legislature that year. RCW 72.09.480 was slipped into HB 2010 with no public hearings, debate or notice. The law mandates the seizure of 35% of all funds sent to prisoners from sources outside the prison system. Of the money seized, 20% goes to the DOC as a "cost of incarceration" fee; 10% goes into a savings account until the prisoner is released and 5% goes to a victims compensation fund. Every year since the law was enacted the legislature has amended it, primarily to respond to legal challenges to the law's inherent flaws. Nothing has been done to address the fundamental unfairness of the law itself. This legislative session was no exception. In December, 1998, Al O'Brien, the Democratic co-chair of the state House corrections committee met with a group of prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. A number of concerns were expressed by the prisoners, the primary one being RCW 72.09.480, on which I gave the groups' presentation. O'Brien promised to introduce legislation repealing the statute in its entirety.

In the 1999 legislative session O'Brien introduced HB 2143. Rather than repeal RCW 72.09 480 in its entirety; the bill would simply amend the law so that prisoners receiving less than $100 a month from sources outside prison would only have 15% taken by the state (10% for a savings account and 5% for a victims fund). Anything over $100 would still have 35% taken by the state.

At a public hearing deputy DOC secretary David Savage testified strongly in support of keeping RCW 72.09.480. Prisoner advocates John Nelson, Jack Roos, Bill Jeske and Sara Fleming testified against it. A substitute bill was introduced at the DOC's urging which would have allowed prisoners to receive less than $100 a mouth and have 25% taken (20% for the DOC's "cost of incarceration" and 5% for victimes compensation).

The final version of HB 1143 that passed contained no changes of substance. Prisoners and their spouses are still subject to having 35% of all funds seized, whether they receive $1 or a thousand dollars. The primary changes that were made are solely an attempt to thwart pending court challenges to the statute.

The 1999 amendments state that prisoners in death row and doing life without parole shall only have 25% of their money taken by the DOC. This was done to meet a claim in Wright v. Riveland that it made little sense to establish savings accounts for prisoners who, according to the state, would, never live to collect them. To meet a censorship claim in Humanists of Washington v. Lehman challenging the DOC's plan to eliminate postage stamps, RCW 72.09.480 was amended to exempt from seizure money sent in to prisoners for the purpose of paying postage.

When RCW 72.09.480 was first enacted, it was literally one sentence in length. After only four years the law now takes up over half a page in the RCWs, with no end in sight.

Responding to news of judge Hall's ruling striking down the law; Representative Ida Ballasiotes, the Republican cochair of the House corrections committee, told the Seattle Times "I'm not surprised by this. I'm really not. We've heard nothing but complaints from family members since the law passed." The complaints have fallen on deaf ears as far as the legislature is con cerned. In any case, the struggle on this issue is far from over.

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